The debate over social media’s effectiveness continues.

Quoting Dr. Mark Ritson, is social media “the greatest act of mis-selling in the history of marketing?”

For people who might have wondered if the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting “lockdown culture” that followed would bring more clarity to the debate about the effectiveness of social media, I think it’s safe to conclude that very little has changed in its wake. Many marketing folks continue to suspect that social media may be closer to “all hat, no cattle” than they’d like it to be. 

In analyses and evaluations going as far back as a decade, most big companies’ followers on social media have never exceeded 2% to 3% of their brands’ customer base. But the true numbers are even more discouraging, because many brand followers on social media are actually “sleepers” who might have liked a brand in order to participate in a competition, receive a giveaway, or for some other “instant gratification” reason they can’t even recall now.

Mark Ritson

A more realistic metric is how many people choose to interact with a brand on social media.  On that basis, the figures nosedive.  Mark Ritson, a brand specialist and professor of marketing who has worked at the London Business School and the University of Minnesota, pegs  true engagement at around 0.02% of the people who “like” brands.

Other research points to similarly disappointing metrics regarding social media’s impact on purchasing activities.  Adobe finds that only about 1% of its social media interactions end up in a purchase, whereas search marketing, direct website traffic and referrals from other websites are the real drivers in terms of the decision to purchase.

So the dynamics haven’t really budged in recent times.  At its core, social media channels enable people to communicate with one another, not with brands.  For the kind of brand marketing we routinely see happening on social media, it’s little more than an advertising medium offering inventory like any other advertising business.  But those aren’t the reasons why people are on social media in the first place – hence the disconnect.

Contrast those dynamics with organic search and paid search marketing, which come into play when people are searching for answers to questions – often about products and what’s available to purchase.  In that regard, any investment in search marketing is money better-spent because it helps keep websites aligned with Google search bots’ way of thinking and judging what content gets shown “first and best” on search engine results pages.  Marketers can see the results and judge the customer acquisition costs accordingly. 

Over in the social media world, it’s true that the biggest brands can show some “success” in their audience engagement, but it’s likely because they have such a huge brand presence to begin with.  That simply isn’t the case with vast majority of companies.  For them, the road to commercial success likely doesn’t run through Social Mediaville.

What are your own personal experiences with marketing via social media?  Has the reality lived up to the promise?  Please share your thoughts and observations with other readers here.

COVID Casualty: Homogenous Corporate Swag

Corporate promotional products and branded swag have been a big part of business for decades.  The Advertising Specialty Institute reports that in 2019, promo products expenditures in North America amounted to nearly $26 billion, amazing as that figure might seem.

But that was before the coronavirus pandemic hit, shutting down trade shows and forcing the cancellation of events (or migrating them online).  All of a sudden, demand for branded tchotchkes, hats, t-shirts, tote bags and the like pretty much disappeared.

However, just because corporate swag fell off the radar screen in 2020 doesn’t mean that corporate freebies for customers and prospects are a thing of the past.  But COVID seems to have changed how some marketers feel about these items — and given them reason to rethink how branded merchandise can do a better job of actually nurturing customer relationships.

Because of this introspection, the days of ubiquitous, unlimited “homogenous” corporate swag may well be numbered — and that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.  For those of us who have participated in industry trade shows, corporate events and the like over the years, when you consider how much stuff is given out to people who promptly discard the items because they aren’t something they either needed or wanted to have, coming up with a different approach was bound to fall on fertile ground.

Enter “gifting-as-a-service” firms.  Several of these such as Snappy App, Kitchen Stadium and Alyce have sprung up in recent times.  They operate under business models that are as simple as they are elegant.  Think of them as “choose your own swag” concepts wherein recipients are given the opportunity to pick which items they prefer – and in some cases the size and color, too.  Then those items are shipped directly to the recipient’s home or office.

Being given a card to check off their item of choice it may not pack the same impact as being given the item right there on the spot, but it actually makes life easier for everyone. No longer does a trade show attendee have to lug the item around the exhibit floor and back to his or her hotel room — nor pack it for the flight home.  The exhibitor doesn’t need to ship swag merchandise to the show – hoping that the quantity shipped isn’t substantially higher or lower than the number of items actually needed.

Such “gifting-as-a-service” programs provide a better experience for recipients, too, because people can select something they actually want from among a selection of items.  And for companies, it could actually turn out to be less costly in the end because they wouldn’t need to be pay for gift items that aren’t redeemed.

Such programs are versatile enough to work across all types of activities – including online as well as in-person events.  They can also be offered as rewards to loyal customers completely apart from any particular show or event.

One final plus – or at least a hope – is that less swag will end up in the trash before it’s even had the chance to be worn or used.  In a world where there’s increasing focus on environmental sustainability, that has to count for something, too.

Tesla gets taken to task by Consumer Reports.

The Tesla Model Y SUV

Getting decent ratings from Consumer Reports is an important achievement for any product – particularly high ticket-items such as large home appliances and motor vehicles.

Many consumers consider CR to be the Holy Grail when it comes to its product evaluations. Indeed, weak comparative ratings is why so many American car makers have suffered greatly when attempting to compete with their Asian and some European counterparts.

And then we have Tesla.  This American car (and solar panel technology) company is different in that the Tesla product line doesn’t include any traditional gasoline-fueled vehicles.  The company has suffered for that in Consumer Reports’ reliability rankings, as its electric car technology isn’t fully mature – and hence subject to some rather gnarly quality control issues.

Actually, the company had been making some pretty steady progress on the product quality front – until the new Model Y mid-size SUV model hit the market earlier this year. Some of the common complaints about that new Tesla model have been eyebrow-raising to say the least – including some very basic and distinctly lo-tech problems like misaligned body panels and mismatched paint colors. 

As it turns out, the knocks on the Model Y have sent Tesla’s brand reputation plummeting in the CR reliability ratings.  The company now ranks an abysmal 25th out of 26 auto brands.  Ouch!

The Model Y has garnered Consumer Reports’ embarrassing designation “much worse than average.”  But Tesla’s more established vehicle models aren’t perceived to be that much better, actually.  CR rates both the Model S sedan and the Model X SUV as “worse than average,” meaning that only Tesla’s Model 3 is currently holding an “average” rating and the commensurate “recommended” status from CR.

Clearly, this company has substantial work left to do to convince a skeptical public of the quality of its automotive lineup.  Considering how quickly electric cars are being adopted now, it looks like the company will need to clean up its act within the next 24 to 36 months, or risk becoming one of those early pioneers that flamed out — just like happened to many of the early entrant motorcar companies a century ago.

What are your own thoughts about the promise – and pitfalls — of Tesla and its products?  Please share your perspectives with other readers here.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Weighing in on America’s most trusted brands.

tutdIf someone were to tell you that the Unites States Postal Service is the most trusted brand in America right now, that might seem surprising at first blush. But that’s what research firm Morning Consult has determined in its first-ever survey of brand trust, in a report issued this past month.

Survey respondents were asked how much they trust each of the brands under study to “do what is right.” The ranking was determined by the share of respondents giving the highest marks in response to the question – namely, that they trust the brand “a lot” to do what is right.

The USPS scored 42% on this measure. By comparison, runner-up Amazon scored ~39% and next-in-line Google scored ~38%.

Wal-Mart rounded out the top 25 brands, with a score of ~32%.

The Morning Consult survey was large, encompassing more than 16,000 interviews and covering nearly 2,000 product and service brands. The size of the research endeavor allowed for evaluation based on age demographics and other segment criteria.

Not surprisingly, ratings and rankings differed by age.  Unsurprisingly, the USPS is ranked highest with the Gen X and Boomer generations, whereas it’s Google that outranks all other brands among Gen Z and Millennial consumers.

mibAnother finding from the research is that of the 100 “most trusted” brands, only two were established after the year 2000 – Android and YouTube. That compares to 20 of the top 100 most-trusted brands that were founded before 1900.  Clearly, a proven track record – measured in decades rather than years – is one highly significant factor in establishing and maintaining brand trust.

Also interesting is the study’s finding that brand attributes related to product or service “reliability’ are far more significant over factors pertaining to “ethics.” Shown below are the factors which two-thirds or more of the survey respondents rated as “very important”:

  • Protects my personal data: ~73% rate “very important”
  • Makes products that work as advertised: ~71%
  • Makes products that are safe: ~70%
  • Consistently delivers on what they promise: ~69%
  • Provides refunds if products don’t work: ~68%
  • Treats their customers well: ~68%
  • Provides good customer service: ~66%

By contrast, the following factors were rated “very important” by fewer than half of the respondents in the survey:

  • Produces products in an ethically responsible way: ~49% rate “very important”
  • Produces products in a way that doesn’t harm the environment: ~47%
  • Has the public interest in mind when it comes to business practices: ~43%
  • Is transparent about labor practices and the supply chain: ~42%
  • Produces goods in America unless it is particularly costly: ~40%
  • Has a mission beyond just profit: ~39%
  • Has not been involved in any major public scandal: ~38%
  • Gives back to society: ~37%
  • Has strong ethical or political values: ~34%

There is much additional data available from the research, including findings on different slices of the consumer market. The full report is accessible from Morning Consult via this link (fee charged).

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.