Is the future of printed books written in disappearing ink?

Considering the spread of digitization into seemingly every nook and cranny of our lives, how are book-reading practices changing?  The Pew Research Center looked into this question recently, and it found that those behaviors are definitely changing.

First, what hasn’t happened is a wholesale flight from printed books.  According to Pew’s January 2018 survey of ~2,000 American adults age 18 and older, fewer than one in ten respondents reported that they’ve pulled the plug completely on reading printed books.

But it turns out that ~30% are reading both digital and printed books.

As for the rest, nearly a quarter of the respondents reported that they don’t read books at all – in any format.

That leaves around 40% who report that they read books in printed form only.

It seems that we’re in the midst of a technologically driven change in behavior. A few short years ago the percentage of Americans reading any books in digital format would have likely been in the single digits.  But now just about half the population of book readers are doing so at least in part using digital technology.

I suspect that we’ll see continue to see a shift towards digital books – and likely at an accelerating pace.  Even though speaking personally, I tend to read “better” when I’m not in front of a screen because I find it easier to absorb the more extensive paragraphs that are more typical to long-form writing.

But that’s just me.  What about you? Are you still reading printed books exclusively, or have you gravitated to digital?  And do you see yourself going 100% digital eventually?  Please leave a comment for the benefit of other readers.

Blogging and social media in B-to-B marketing: Continually falling short.

As a MarComm specialist and head of a marketing firm for several decades, I’ve worked with my share of marketing tactics — the tried-and-true ones as well as the “next new things.”

Along those lines, working with numerous B-to-B companies in their attempts to turn social media and blogging into significant sources of new business, the track records have been more often ones of failure than of success.

I think the issue boils down to something pretty fundamental: Unlike consumer products, where customers can fall deeply “in love” with particular brands, or at the very least develop feelings of brand affinity, in the world of business products and services, the brand dynamics are seldom “emotional.”

The reality is, business buyers are looking for products and services that will solve their problems and also provide all-important CYA peace of mind. Few B-to-B buyers are truly “excited” about these purchases, and they aren’t personally “invested” in the brands in question, either.

Instead, they’re looking for solutions that work. Ones that deliver on a checklist of criteria, and ones that don’t risk unpleasant developments down the road.

In such a world, the notion that buyers are waiting around to read the and interact with the next blog article or social media post that’s published by a supplier is fanciful at best.

News flash: The target audience doesn’t care about things like that.  Business buyers don’t have time in their busy schedules to read the posts.  The few times they will is when they need to satisfy a business need and are looking for information to help them make an informed buying decision.

But of course, it’s precisely then when content needs to be easily findable on the web. Brands that have published deeper and more relevant content than their competitors are going to be the ones that show up on search engine results pages (SERPs), because those are the websites the search engines reward with higher rankings based on the perceived “relevance” of the web pages in question.

This view of B-to-B audience dynamics isn’t just my personal one; survey research of B-to-B buyers reveals similar attitudes.  For instance, market research and communication firm KoMarketing publishes an annual B2B Web Usability Report, and the findings they uncover are consistent:

  • Most B-to-B buyers don’t think a blog adds much to a supplier’s credibility as a company.
  • As for social media activity, three-fourths of buyers find such platforms irrelevant to their interests and concerns.

So, what is it that buyers are seeking?

It’s more “actionable” data such as sales contact information (who to call), a list of customers a supplier serves (addressing the credibility factor), plus customer testimonials, case studies and similar reports that help buyers “see” themselves in the experiences of other customers.

That’s pretty much it.

Which brings us back to blog posts in the B-to-B realm. Informative articles that center on customer testimonials and before/after case studies provide the best of everything:  content that buyers will actually find useful, along with the “relevance” and “robust activity” that search bots are seeking in making their quasi-mysterious calculations on how high to rank a particular web page on SERP pages.

It dovetails with my typical advice to business clients:

  • Don’t publish blog posts because you expect people to read them like they would a newsfeed. Publish them for relevance and visibility when your prospect is actually seeking out information and insights — which could be months or even years after you publish the post.
  • Make sure each blog article addresses “problem –> solution” topics centered on the challenges your customers are most likely to face.
  • Twitter or Facebook? Unless your marketing have plenty of time on their hands and nothing better to do, don’t bother with these social platforms at all — because the payoff is so mediocre.

What about you? Are your B-to-B marketing experiences different?  If so, please share your perspectives in the comment section for the benefit of other readers.

What’s happened to influencer marketing?

Over the past five years or so, one of the key tactics of branding has been convincing “market influencers” to promote products and services through endorsements rather than relying on traditional advertising. Not only does “influencer marketing” save on paid advertising costs, presumably the brand promotion appears more “genuine” to consumers of the information.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work according to the textbook theory.

But let’s dissect this a bit.

Some of the earliest forms of “influencer marketing” were the so-called “mommy bloggers” who were stars of the social media world not so long ago. The blogs run by these people were viewed as authentic portrayals of motherhood with all of its attendant joys and stresses.

Mommy blogs like Heather Armstrong’s Dooce.com, Jenny Lawson’s The Bloggess and Glennon Doyle’s Momastery once held sway with stratospheric monthly traffic exceeding the million page level.  But once that volume of engagement happened, it didn’t take long for many bloggers to begin to command big dollars in exchange for product mentions and brand endorsements.

Various meetings and workshops were organized featuring these bloggers and other stars of the social media world – moms, style gurus, interior decorators, fashionistas and the like – providing a forum for consumer product and service companies to interact with these social movers-and-shakers and pitch their products in hopes of positive mentions.

Eager to jump on the bandwagon of this phenomenon, several years ago I recall one of my corporate clients attending their first conference of bloggers — in this case ones who specialize in home décor and remodeling topics.

To put it mildly, our client team was shocked at the “bazaar-like” atmosphere they encountered, with bloggers thrusting tariff schedules in front of their faces listing prices for getting brand and product mentions based on varying levels of “attention” – photos, headline story treatment and the like.

Even more eyebrow-raising were the price tags attached to these purportedly “authentic” endorsements – often running into the thousands of dollars.

Quite the gravy train, it turns out.

It would be nice to report that when the bubble burst on these types of blogs, it was because their readers wised up to what was actually happening.   But the reality is a little less “momentous.”  Simply put, blogging on the whole has stagnated as audiences have moved to other platforms. The rise of “mobile-everything” means that consumers are spending less time and attention on reading long-form blog posts.  Instead, they’re interacting more with photos and related short, pithy descriptions.

Think Facebook and Instagram.

Along with that shift, product endorsements have reverted back to something more akin to what it was like before the time of social media – product promotion that feels like product promotion.

Look at blogging sites today, and often they feel more like classified advertising – more transactional and less discursive. Photos and video clips are the “main event,” and the writing appears to exist almost exclusively to “sell stuff.”

Many consumers see through it all … and it seems as though they’ve come to terms with the bloggers and their shtick.  With a wink and a nudge, most everyone now recognizes that bloggers are “on the take.”  It’s a job – just as surely as the rest of us have our 8-to-5 jobs.

Still, it’s an acceptable tradeoff because in the process, useful information is being communicated; it’s just more transactional in nature, like in the “old days.”

So where does this put influencer marketing today? It’s out there.  It still has resonance.  But people know the score, and few are being fooled any longer.

It’s certainly food for thought for marketers who are thinking that they can use influencer marketing to replace advertising.

They still can … sort of.

Amazon’s Spark that Fizzled …

Amazon Spark: Less like a sizzle … more like a fizzle.

It’s now been more than nine months since Amazon launched its social media platform Spark … and so far, it’s hardly sizzled.

In fact, it’s made barely a ripple in the market.

There are plenty of people who contend that the last thing the world needs is yet another social network. But others would like to see new alternatives to the recently beleaguered Facebook platform.

As for its trajectory, it looks as if Spark is following the former rather than the latter path. The question is, “Why?”

Very likely, the answer lies in Spark’s questionable underlying raison d’etre.  Essentially, Spark is a social feed of photos and other images. That makes it similar to Instagram … sort of.

One difference between the two platforms is that Spark is open to exclusively to Amazon Prime members.  That limits the potential number of Spark users pretty severely, right from the get-go.  [It’s true that non-members can view Spark feeds — but they can’t post their own content. And what’s a social platform if you cannot interact with it?  It isn’t one.]

Another difference with Instagram may be even more of a fundamental problem. The rationale for Spark is to focus on products that Amazon sells.  Spark is directly “shoppable,” which differentiates it from Instagram and other social networks.  It also makes it less like a true social network and more like a garden-variety e-commerce site.

In other words, rather than being an interesting and engaging social platform, Spark is boring. Informative – but boring.

It isn’t that Amazon/Spark allows brands themselves to post content there; posting privileges are granted only to people it dubs “enthusiasts” or “onsite associates.” Brands must seek out “regular people” [sic] who are members of Amazon Prime to post content on their behalf about their products.

And I’m sure that’s happening – along with varying levels and forms of compensation flowing to these supposed “enthusiasts” in return for the product plugs. But can anyone imagine less compelling content than what results from this kind of commercialized “AstroTurfing”?  No wonder people are ignoring this social media platform.

Andrew Sandoval, a group director for media planning agency The Media Kitchen, summarizes Spark’s predicament by noting that lifestyle-focused people tend congregate on Instagram — a place that shows people living their lives through products. By contrast, “Amazon Spark is mostly just talking about your products, which is the hard-sell.  Ultimately, the e-commerce social experience is a little too far from the social experience,” Sandoval opines.

Have you interfaced with Spark since its July 2017 launch? If so, do you see redeeming qualities about the platform that the rest of us might be missing?  Please share your comments with other readers.

The New York Times: Out of print in ten years?

It isn’t anything particularly special to hear people talking about the declining market for print newspapers, and how market dynamics and demographic trends have put the traditional newspaper publishing model at risk.

At the same time, most newspaper publications have found it quite challenging to “migrate” their print customers to paid-subscription digital platforms. The plethora of free news sites online makes it difficult to entice people to pay for digital access to the news – even if the quality of the “free” coverage is lower.

New York Times CEO Mark Thompson, appearing on CNBC’s Power Lunch program (February 12, 2018).

But it was quite something to hear a forecast made by Mark Thompson, The New York Times’ CEO.  Earlier this month, Thompson made remarks during CNBC’s Power Lunch broadcast that amounted to a prediction that the NYT’s print edition won’t be around in another ten years.

Thompson went on to explain that his company’s objective is to build the digital product even while print is going away:

“The key thing for us is that we’re pivoting. Our plan is to go on serving our loyal print subscribers as long as we can.  But meanwhile, to build up the digital business so that we can have a successful growing company and a successful news operation long after print is gone.”

It’s one thing for newspapers in various cities across the country to be facing the eventuality of throwing in the towel on their print product. It’s quite another for a newspaper as vaunted as The New York Times to be candidly predicting this result happening.

It would seem that the NYT, along with the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and possibly USA Today would be the four papers most able to preserve their print editions because of their business models (USA Today’s hotel distribution program) or simply because of their vaunted reputations as America’s only daily newspapers with anything approaching nationwide distribution.

I guess this is what makes the Thompson remarks so eyebrow-raising. If there isn’t a long-term future for The New York Times when it comes to print, what does that say about the rest of the newspaper industry?  “Hopeless” seems like the watchword.

It will be interesting indeed if, a decade from now, we find no print newspapers being published in this country save for hyper-local news publications – the ones which rely on print subscribers seeing their friends and family in the paper for weddings, funerals, community activities, school sports and other such parochial (or vanity) purposes.

Interesting … but a little depressing, too.

Consumer reviews are important to online shoppers. So, are more people participating now?

Based on new research, the time-honored “90-9-1 rule” may no longer be accurate.

The 90-9-1 rule states that for every 100 people active online, one person creates content … nine people respond to created content … and 90 are merely lurkers – consuming the information but not “engaging” with it at all.

But now we have a survey by ratings and reviews platform Clutch which suggests that the ratio may be changing. The Clutch survey finds that around 20% of online shoppers have written reviews for some of their purchases.

That finding would seem to indicate that more people are now involved in content engagement than before. Still, when just one in five shoppers are writing and posting customer reviews, it continues to represent only a distinct minority of the market.

So, the big question for brands and e-commerce providers is how to encourage a greater number of people to post reviews, since such feedback is cited so often as one of the most important considerations for people who are weighing their choices when purchasing a new product or service.

A few of the ways that businesses have attempted to increase participation in customer reviews include:

  • Make the review process as efficient as possible by requesting specific feedback through star ratings.
  • Provide additional rating options on product/service performance sub-categories through quick guided questions.
  • Offering incentives such as a contest entry might also help gain more reviews, although the FTC does have regulations in place that prohibit offering explicit incentives in exchange for receiving favorable reviews.
  • Providing timely customer service – including resolving products with orders – can also increase the likelihood of garnering reviews that are positive rather than negative ones.

This last point is underscored by additional Clutch results which, when the survey asked why online shoppers write reviews, uncovered these reasons:

  • Was especially satisfied with the product or service: ~33%
  • Received an e-mail specifically requesting to leave feedback: ~23%
  • Was offered an incentive to leave feedback: ~5%
  • Was especially dissatisfied with the product or service: ~2%

For companies who might be concerned that negative feedback will be given lots of play, the 2% statistic above should come as some relief. And even if a negative review is published, the situation can often be rectified by reaching out to the reviewer and providing remedies to make things right, thereby “turning lemons into lemonade.”

After all, most consumers are pretty charitable if they sense that a company is making a good-faith effort to correct a perceived problem.

Changing Cross-Currents in E-Mail Marketing

Many marketers find it one of the easiest marketing tactics to execute … but also one of the least effective in terms of results.

In the realm of digital marketing, e-mail marketing has to be one of the most mature choices of tactics these days. It’s been around for a long time, and its relatively small hard-dollar costs make it one a natural “go-to” marketing tactic for many companies.

But today, a declining percentage of marketers see e-mail as one of their most effective tactics in the digital marketing arsenal.

So, what’s the problem?  Many companies have the technology and skills in place to perform e-mail programs using in-house resources. That’s the good news.

The not-so-good news is that more companies are seeing their e-mail programs becoming less effective — for a variety of reasons. Among them are these:

  • E-mail filtering technology is making it more difficult to land e-mails into inboxes.
  • Privacy regulations are becoming more stringent.
  • Overuse of this marketing tactic means more e-mail messages than ever from more companies are being deployed – and with that, more of them are being ignored by recipients.
  • While e-mail used to be the only digital direct marketing game in town, today there are a bigger variety of ways to engage with customers and prospects.
  • Building a high-performing e-mail list that also conforms to regulatory stipulations is more challenging than ever.

This last point is particularly nettlesome for marketers: Data quality and data management are considered among the most difficult challenges for marketers – and also among the least effective in terms of their success.

So, in some ways the factors affecting the use of e-mail marketing are working at cross-purposes. E-mail marketing is easier to execute than other digital marketing endeavors … but as for its effectiveness, many marketers rate other tactics higher, including content marketing and search engine optimization.

In the coming years, it will be interesting to see how attitudes and behaviors regarding e-mail continue to evolve. Will this time-honored tactic decline in importance, or find new life?  Stay tuned …