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.

The New World of PR

Companies work to find their place in the changing ecosystem — some more effectively than others.

For those of us who have been active  in the marketing communications industry over the past few decades, there’s been a sea change in how the industry operates — not least in the realm of PR and media relations.

One of the underlying reasons for this change is the dramatic shift that’s happened in the field of journalism. Traditional media companies which have long relied on professional reporters and editorial contributors have been dealing with a range of existential threats.  Print circulation has sagged while audiences have fragmented over a plethora of digital content publishers — most of which offer news and information free of charge.

At the same time, publishers’ revenues from advertising have plummeted as the media inventory has expanded to encompass the new digital content publishers.  The bottom-line impact of these twin developments is that it has become much more difficult for traditional media companies to employ the same number of staff reporters; indeed, many publishers have shrunk their newsrooms while relying increasingly on independent contributors and freelancers to fill in the gaps.

But the situation gets even more complicated thanks to the evolution of digital media and the explosive growth of self-publishing platforms. The reality is that there’s a new class of authors who are increasingly publishing from their own platforms, without being involved with any of the major media outlets.

In such a world, the notion of PR departments simply keeping in close touch with a limited number of key journalists as the most effective way of gaining earned media coverage seems almost quaint.

And it gets even more problematic when considering how much easier it is for businesses to prepare and disseminate PR news. At their best, PR pitches rely on the same tools as marketing in general: profiling the audience; personalizing the news pitch, and so forth.

The problem is, according to the U.S. Bureau of Census, there are now more than six PR pros for every journalist. This means that more PR news releases than ever are hitting the inboxes of far fewer journalists and reporters.

Is it any wonder that PR news released by companies is so often being ignored?

According to a recent survey of ~1,000 journalists by PR Newswire, the following aspects of PR pitches are the most annoying to reporters and journalists:

  • Too much overt “marketing” in the pitch
  • Lack of relevant or useful content
  • Unclear or misleading subject lines on e-emails
  • Insufficient news detail

On the other hand, some aspects help in a PR pitch, including:

  • High-resolution photography
  • Video clips
  • Infographics

In today’s PR landscape, obtaining earned media is more difficult than ever. These days, not only do you need a great story to tell, you need to craft the perfect narrative. And even then, you might never get the news covered by a so-called “Tier 1” publication.

But missing out on Tier 1 coverage isn’t necessarily the kiss of death. Sometimes the lower tier represents the best targeted audience to receive news from companies. Moreover, by employing low-cost self-publishing tools, a decent social media strategy plus some basic search engine optimization, it’s actually possible to build an audience and garner as many well-targeted readers as those elusive Tier 1 pubs might be able to deliver.

In the new world of PR, the “tried and true” avenues to earned media coverage aren’t getting the job done.  But there are more routes than ever to get the news out instead of having to channel your efforts to go through the gate-keepers of yore.

Yet another challenge for publishers: Subscription fatigue.

As if it isn’t enough that newspaper and magazine publishers have to compete with an ever-widening array of information providers, in the effort to migrate subscription revenues from print to digital these publishers are squaring off against an additional challenge: subscription fatigue.

Not every consumer is opposed to paying for media, but with so many fee-based streaming services now being offered — including the ones by powerhouses like Netflix and Spotify — trying to get people to focus on “yet another” resource is proving difficult.

Moreover, when it comes to news information sources it’s even more challenging. According to a recent Digital News Report prepared by Reuters Institute, when given a choice between paying for news or paying for a video streaming service, only ~12% of respondents in the Reuters survey stated that they would pick the news resource.

It seems that with so many time demands on people’s online activities, fewer are willing to pay for access to information that they don’t wish to commit to consuming on a regular basis. Unlike most of the entertainment streaming services, news stories are often available from free sources whenever a consumer might choose to access such news stories. Those alternative news sources may not be as comprehensive, but i’s a tradeoff many consumers appear willing to make.

This is hurting everyone in the news segment, including local newspapers in smaller markets which have faced a major falloff in print advertising revenues.

Underscoring this dynamic, more than 1,800 newspapers in the United States have closed their doors in the past 15 years. Today, fewer than half of the country’s counties have even one newspaper within their borders. This fallout is affecting the availability of some news information, as local media have a history of covering stories that aren’t covered elsewhere.

But it’s yet more collateral damage in the sea change that’s upended the world of newspapers and periodicals in recent years.

More findings from the Reuters Institute report can be accessed here.

A Marketer’s Resolution for the New Year

Note: Those of you who are regular readers of my marketing and culture blog have noticed that it “went dark” for a period of time over the past month or so.  The twin developments of health issues plus a death in the family (my mother, at the age of 96-and-a-half years), meant that I needed to be focused on recuperation and also estate matters.  But I’m back … and hopefully back to my regular schedule of posting.

For my final blog post of 2019, it comes in the form of a resolution for us marketers. It’s to finally acknowledge how little “upside potential” there actually is for social media to build or maintain a brand presence … and instead to place renewed focus on tactics that’ll actually deliver a more measurable ROI.

Most of my business clients have put a degree of effort into social media over the years – some with more focus and fortitude than others. But whether the campaigns have been “full speed ahead” or only half-hearted, invariably the end-result seems to be the same:  a sales needle that hardly moves, if at all.

Moreover, social media takes a deceptively significant amount of effort for that little bit of payoff. Companies that put in the effort devote human capital and in some cases substantive dollar resources to tap outside support, but frequently the results aren’t any more impactful than for our clients who merrily go on ignoring social medial platforms, year after year.  At least when looking at bottom-line sales.

Plus, in our highly sensitized world, these days it seems that when social media actually has an impact, more often than not it’s a negative one.  Too often it’s the sorry end-result of some sort of faux pas where even the best-laid plans for departmental or legal review aren’t carried out fully and the brand gets into trouble. (Sometimes that happens even with all of the checks and balances in place and being carried out religiously.)

So for 2020, we marketers could well be better off acknowledging how thin the promise of social media actually is.  We should ignore the siren calls of “likes” and “engagement” and stop chasing the phantom pot of gold at the end of the phantom rainbow. Chances are, your company’s bottom line will look just as strong, even as you focus more of your time and budget on marketing activities that’ll actually make a positive difference.

What are your thoughts on social media for brands? Please share them with other readers here.

How the psychology of color “colors” the effectiveness of websites.

As one of the five senses, sight is usually mentioned first. And little wonder, if we consider what an integral part of our life’s experience is based on what we see.

Color is a huge part of that — and it goes beyond “sight” as well. We use color not only to pinpoint a place on the visible spectrum, but also to describe intangible factors such as emotions and character traits.

Ever wonder why people talk about “orchestral color”? This seeming contradiction in terms is actually one of the fundamental ways we can “see” music in our minds as well as hear it in our ears. The Russian composer Alexander Scriabin went so far as to associate individual colors on the visual spectrum with specific musical chords; the colors themselves are written into the score for his last orchestral piece, his Fifth Symphony (Prometheus: The Poem of Fire), composed in 1910.

Alexander Scriabin

Recognizing the importance of color and its impact on how humans think and behave, marketers and branding specialists have long made use of the power of color in advertising and design. This continues today in the digital world of websites and other electronic media, where the choice of colors has measurable impact on website engagement and conversions.

Marketing and design specialist Raj Vardhman has compiled a number of interesting facts about the “psychology of color” and its impact on viewer engagement:

  • It takes approximately 90 seconds for a viewer to make a quick product assessment — and two-thirds of this judgment is based on color.
  • Color is a key reason for selecting a particular product. For instance, two-thirds of shoppers won’t purchase a large appliance if it isn’t available in their preferred color.
  • The classic notion of “pink for girls” and “blue for boys” turns out to be generally true (despite the penchant for choosing yellow when a family doesn’t want to “channel” their newborn towards a particular gender identity). Bold colors or shades of blue, black and darker green are preferred by most men, whereas more women prefer soft colors or tints of purple, pink, rose and lighter green.

Furthermore, attitudinal studies show that main color groups convey certain characteristics:

  • Red embodies life, excitement and boldness. It’s used often in iconic consumer brands, but also to announce clearance sales.
  • Blue telegraphs productivity, tranquility and trust. Is it any wonder that blue colors are the hands-down favorite among commercial/industrial product brands?
  • Green evokes growth, nature and harmony. Its use has been growing in recent decades.
  • Yellow personifies joy, intellect and energy. It’s employed by brands to evoke cheerful, sunny feelings.
  • Purple suggests wealth and royalty. It’s no accident that “royal purple” has been with us since Renaissance times.
  • Black projects authority, power and elegance. Not surprisingly, it’s the most popular choice for marketing luxury products. But it can be highly effective in promoting technology products as well.
  • White and silver communicate perfection and pristine clarity. These colors are also popular with technology products, but are used very often in healthcare-related products and services.

These time-honored color characteristics are very much in play in the world of websites. Such aspects are a factor in nine out of ten visitors to a website — half of whom report that they won’t return to a website based on the site’s lack of aesthetics, not just its functionality.

As well, the colors of call-to-action buttons are significant, as studies show that red, orange and green CTA buttons are the best ones for conversions (but only if they stand out from the rest of the content on the screen).

More fundamentally, what this means for website designers is that despite the desire to be “different” or “distinct” from others in the marketplace, many attitudes about color are so fundamental, that to fly in the face of them could well be a risky endeavor.

Beyond brand loyalty: Where “daily relevance” now matters.

In recent times, the Harvard Business Review has reported on a so-called “new era” that is emerging in marketing.  In an HBR article co-authored by Joshua Bellin, Robert Wollan and John Zealley, three marketing science specialists at Accenture, the notion of marketing as a set of sequential trends that overtake and supersede one another is covered.

What are those sequential trends? The HBR article outlines five of them and dubs them “eras,” each of them evolving with increasing rapidity:

  • Mass marketing (up through the 1970s) – The era of mass production, scale and distribution.
  • Marketing segmentation (1980s) – More sophisticated research enabling marketers to target customers in niche segments.
  • Customer-level marketing (1990s and 2000s) – Advances in enterprise IT make it possible to target individuals and aim to maximize customer lifetime value.
  • Loyalty marketing (2010s) – The era of CRM, tailored incentives and advanced customer retention.
  • Relevance marketing (emerging) – Mass communication to the previously unattainable “Segment of One.”

Clearly, it’s technology that has been the catalyst for change as we migrate from one era to the next. Mass marketing was a staple for the better part of 40 years, what with radio/TV and newspaper advertising being paramount.  But subsequent eras have come along much more quickly as we’ve moved from market segmentation to customer-level marketing and loyalty marketing.

As for the emerging era of “relevance marketing,” new techniques are enabling marketers to exploit explicit data by name (such as previous purchase history and other known information) along with implicit data (additional information that can be inferred by behavior).

The question is whether this kind of “relevance” will engender long-term wins with today’s customers. The same technology that enables advertisers to target “Segments of One” is what enables those very targets to weigh the worth of those messages, discounts and offers so that they can find the best “deal” for themselves in their exact moment of need.

As far as the customer is concerned, wholesale digitization means that last week’s “preferred vendor” could be next week’s “reject” — with “loyalty” standing at the wayside holding the bag.

The danger is that for the seller, it can rapidly become a “race to the bottom” as buyers’ spontaneity erodes profit margins while the brand goodwill dissipates as quickly as it was created.

Marketing thought leaders Jim Lecinski, Gord Hotchkiss and several others have referred to this as the “zero moment of truth” – and in this case the “zero” may also be referring to the seller’s profit margin after we’ve progressed through the five eras of marketing that bring us to the “Segment of One.”

What are your thoughts about where marketing is ending up now that technology has given companies the power to micro-target — particularly if it means profit margins declining to their own “micro” levels? Please share your thoughts with other readers.

Cookie-blocking is having a big impact on ad revenues … now what?

When Google feels the need to go public about the state of the current ad revenue ecosystem, you know something’s up.

And “what’s up” is actually “what’s down.” According to a new study by Google, digital publishers are losing more than half of their potential ad revenue, on average, when readers set their web browser preferences to block cookies – those data files used to track the online activity of Internet users.

The impact of cookie-blocking is even bigger on news publishers, which are foregoing ad revenues of around 62%, according to the Google study.

The way Google conducted its investigation was to run a 4-month test among ~500 global publishers (May to August 2019). Google disabled cookies on a randomly selected part of each publisher’s traffic, which enabled it to compare results with and without the cookie-blocking functionality employed.

It’s only natural that Google would be keen to understand the revenue impact of cookie-blocking. Despite its best efforts to diversify its business, Alphabet, Google’s parent company, continues to rely heavily on ad revenues – to the tune of more than 85% of its entire business volume.

While that percent is down a little from the 90%+ figures of 5 or 10 years ago, in spite of diversifying into cloud computing and hardware such as mobile phones, the dizzyingly high percentage of Google revenues coming from ad sales hasn’t budged at all in more recent times.

And yet … even with all the cookie-blocking activity that’s now going on, it’s likely that this isn’t the biggest threat to Google’s business model. That distinction would go to governmental regulatory agencies and lawmakers – the people who are cracking down on the sharing of consumer data that underpins the rationale of media sales.

The regulatory pressures are biggest in Europe, but consumer privacy concerns are driving similar efforts in North America as well.

Figuring that a multipronged effort makes sense in order to counteract these trends, this week Google aired a proposal to give online users more control over how their data is being used in digital advertising, and seeking comments and feedback from interest parties.

On a parallel track, it has also initiated a project dubbed “Privacy Sandbox” to give publishers, advertisers, technology firms and web developers a vehicle to share proposals that will, in the words of Google, “protect consumer privacy while supporting the digital ad marketplace.”

Well, readers – what do you think? Do these initiatives have the potential to change the ecosystem to something more positive and actually achieve their objectives?  Or is this just another “fool’s errand” where attractive-sounding platitudes sufficiently (or insufficiently) mask a dimmer reality?

Company e-newsletters: Much ado about … what?

One of my clients is a multinational manufacturing firm that has published its own “glossy” company magazine for years now. The multi-page periodical is published several times a year, in several regional editions including one for the North American market.

It’s a magazine that’s full of interesting customer “case histories” accompanied by large, eye-catching photos. The stories are well-written and sufficiently “breezy” in character to read quickly and without strenuous effort.  The North American edition is direct-mailed to a sizable target audience of mid-five figures.

And I wonder how many people actually read it.

The reason for my suspicion stems from the time we were asked to produce a survey asking about readers’ topic preferences for the magazine. The questionnaire was bound into one of the North American issues, including a postage-paid return envelope.  The survey was simple and brief (tick-boxes with no open-ended questions).  And there was an incentive offered to participate.

In short, it was the kind of survey that anyone who engaged with the publication even marginally would find worthwhile and easy to complete.

… Except that (practically) no one did so.

The unavoidable conclusion: people were so unengaged with the publication that they weren’t even opening the magazine to discover that there was a survey to fill out.

In the world of company e-mail newsletters, is the same dynamic is at work? One might think not.  After all, readers must opt-in to receive them – suggesting that their engagement level would tend to be higher.

Well … no.

A just-published study titled How Audiences View Content Marketing, finds that company e-newsletters are just as “disengaging” as the printed pieces of yesteryear.

The study’s results are based on a survey conducted by digital web design firm Blue Fountain Media. Among the findings outlined in the report are these interesting nuggets:

  • One in five respondents completely ignore the e-newsletters they receive, while more than half scan headlines before deciding to read anything.
  • Two-thirds of respondents admitted that the main reason for opting in to receive e-newsletters is to take advantage of special offers or discounts, while only around 20% expressed any interest at all in receiving information about the company.
  • More than half of respondents (~52%) feel that newsletter content is too “commercial” (as in “too sales-y”). Other complaints are that the e-newsletters are “too long” (~21%) or “boring” (~19%).

Even more alarming is this finding: Approximately one-third of the respondents felt that e-newsletter content is so lame, it actually leads them to question using the product or service.

That seems like marketing going in reverse!

What Blue Fountain has uncovered may be indicative of another challenge as well:  the diminishing allure of content marketing. Over time, readers have become cautious about accepting online content as the gospel truth; this research pegs it at two-thirds of respondents feeling this way.

At the same time, only about one-third of the respondents think that they can distinguish well between fact-based content versus content with an “agenda” behind it. And therein lies the basis for suspicion or distrust.

On the plus side, the research found that readers are more apt to engage with video content, so that may be a way for e-newsletters to fight back in the battle for relevance.  But it still seems a pretty tall order.

I address the topic of company e-newsletters in a second blog post to follow.  Stay tuned …

Do consumers really understand “native advertising” labeling?

There’s no question that “native advertising” – paid editorial content – has become a popular “go-to” marketing tactic. After all, it’s based on the time-tested notion that people don’t like advertising, and they’re more likely to pay attention to information that looks more like a news article than an ad.

Back in the days of print-only media, paid editorial placements were often labeled as “advertorials.” But these days we’re seeing a plethora of ways to label them – whether identified as “sponsored content,” “paid posts,” or using some kind of lead-in descriptor such as “presented by …”

Behind all of the verbal gymnastics is the notion that people may not easily distinguish native advertising from true editorial if the identification can be kept somewhat euphemistic. At the same time, the verbal “sleight of hand” raises concerns about the obfuscation that seems to be going on.

These dynamics have been tested. One such test, conducted several years ago by ad tech company TripleLift, used biometric eye-tracking to see how people would view the same piece of native advertising, that carries different disclosure labeling.

The results were revealing. Here are the percentages of participants who saw each ad, based on how the content was labeled:

  • Presented by” labeling: ~39% saw the content
  • “Sponsored by” labeling: ~29%
  • “Promoted by” labeling: ~26%
  • “Brought to you by” labeling: ~24%
  • “Advertisement” labeling: ~23%

Notice that the content that was labeled “advertisement” was noticed the least often. This provides yet more confirmation that people ignore ads.  When advertisers used softer/fuzzier terms like “presented by” and “sponsored by,” they achieved a bigger lift in the content being noticed.

It comes as little surprise that those same “presented by” and “sponsored by” labels are also the most potentially confusing to people regarding whether the item is paid content. And when people find out the truth, they tend to feel deceived.

Members of the Association of National Advertisers look at it the same way. In an ANA survey of its members conducted several years ago, two-thirds of the respondents agreed that there should be “clear disclosure” of native ads – even if there’s a lack of consensus regarding who should be responsible for the labeling or what constitutes “clear” disclosure.

Asked which labeling describes native ad disclosure “very well,” here’s what the ANA survey found:

  • “Advertisement”: 62% say this labeling describes native ad placements “very well”
  • “Paid content”: 37%
  • “Paid posts”: 34%
  • “Sponsored by”: 31%
  • “Native advertising”: 12%
  • “Presented by”: 11%
  • “Promoted by”: 11%
  • “Branded content”: 8%
  • “Featured partner”: 8%

Considering that the findings are all over the map, it would be nice if a universal method of disclosure could be devised. But the language that’s agreed upon shouldn’t scare away readers, since in so many cases native advertising isn’t directly pitching a product or service.  Labeling such content “advertising” would be as much of a misnomer as failing to divulge the company paying for the placement.

My personal preference for adopting consistent labeling language among the options above would be “Sponsored by …”  What’s yours?

For good or for ill, political advertising has just one trajectory: “Up”.

For those of us who hope that we’d seen the apex of political advertising in 2016 or 2018, it looks like we’re in for a rude awakening. Just-released projections from Advertising Analytics and Cross Screen Media predict that political advertising will exceed $6 billion in 2020 — nearly half of it allocated to the presidential contest alone.

And if we thought that broadcast TV and cable TV advertising might be leveling off because of the explosion of digital advertising, that’s incorrect as well. As it turns out, political advertising across all sectors is going to be up significantly.  Here’s what’s forecast:

More specifically, the analysts project ~8 million broadcast airings of political ads in 2020, which is significantly above both the 2016 and the 2018 figures. Meanwhile, digital advertising will grow by the biggest percentage, but will still make up less than 30% of the total expenditures.

One thing appears to be completely static, however:  where most of the ad dollars will be spent. It seems that the same ~15 states will remain the big battlegrounds in 2020, so the lion’s share of the advertising will be just as concentrated as it was in 2016.  Here are the report’s state projections:

Might it be time to move to a nice one-party state like Rhode Island, Washington, North Dakota or Mississippi? Perhaps — if only for the campaign season …

For those gluttons for punishment who’d like to view the full report, it can be accessed here.