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.

A small silver lining in the big, black Coronavirus cloud? Robocalls fall off a cliff.

There isn’t much positive news at all for businesses and consumers coming out of the Coronavirus pandemic — which makes one appreciate any glimmer of good news all the more.

One thing we’ve noticed at my company is a drop-off of those pesky robocalls in recent days. As it turns out, we aren’t the only ones seeing this.  My brother, Nelson Nones, who lives and works in East Asia but who also has U.S. personal and business phone lines, has noticed the same phenomenon.  And he believes that there’s a direct correlation to the COVID-19 outbreak.

What’s more, he has quantitative evidence to back it up. Here’s what he writes:

Within the past fortnight I’ve noticed a dramatic falloff in the number of robocalls I’m receiving to my primary landline. 

I’ve plotted the number of robocalls I’ve received so far during each day of March 2020, alongside the cumulative number of COVID-19 cases reported worldwide. Here are the results month-to-date:

What classifies as a “robocall”? I define a robocall to be an inbound call received from a phone number I’ve blocked based on reputations reported by the https://www.nomorobo.com website. 

As the chart above shows, the falloff began on March 11, 2020, just as the cumulative number of COVID-19 cases worldwide began to accelerate. Whereas during the first ten days of March I had been receiving two robocalls per day on average, since then I’ve received an average of just one robocall every five days.  

That’s almost a 90% drop. 

Is this just a happy coincidence? 

At first glance, maybe — because COVID-19 cases didn’t start to accelerate rapidly in the U.S. for another week or so, at about the same time as schools and theaters began to close, sporting events were postponed or cancelled, and many people began working remotely.  

If anything, one would expect the volume of robocalls to jump as scammers seize the opportunity to prey upon the growing number of people in the U.S. who are available to answer calls while cocooning at home.  

Most scammers use a technique called “neighbor-spoofing” to trick people into answering by displaying a local U.S. phone number. For a personal example, nearly all the robocalls I block appear to come from my U.S. area code (or from overlapping and adjacent area codes).  

But in fact, the vast majority of those calls originate from overseas. This makes them difficult to trace, but anecdotal evidence suggests that many of the calls originate from India and the Philippines, which already have well-established and legitimate call center industries owing to the local population’s English language skills.

As examples, Medicare scams involving the writing of fraudulent prescriptions for orthopedic braces are perpetrated in the Philippines, while sophisticated IRS scams have been broken up in India.

The scammers are criminal organizations that use personal computers, free software and ultra-cheap voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) connections to dial vast numbers of calls automatically. The tiny fraction of calls that are answered are put through to their human staff, who are reportedly packed elbow-to-elbow in call centers hidden inside the upper floors of nondescript buildings, under the constant watch of security cameras and even armed guards.  

In other words, the perfect coronavirus-spreading grounds. 

[What makes it possible for me to track this is thanks to the very same VOIP technology, which automatically routes callers who dial my primary U.S. landline to Thailand free of charge.] 

As you can see in the chart below, COVID-19 cases were already trending upward in India and the Philippines when my robocalls began to drop precipitously on March 11, 2020, about a week ahead of the U.S. curve:

I don’t think that this is a coincidence.

I suspect a lot of people in those concealed call centers got sick and went home. And now that India and the Philippines are in near-total lockdown, hardly anyone can show up for work to keep the scams running. 

We’ll see if the tsunami of robocalls resumes once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. In the meantime, I’m happy to count the hiatus as a small Coronavirus blessing, alongside Italy’s passionate sopranos and tenors in lockdown and the many acts of human kindness now being reported in the U.S. media.

Company e-newsletters: Much ado about … what? (Part 2)

This post is a continuation of a topic I wrote about several days ago. That column focused on the (lack of) reader engagement with customer e-newsletters and what may be the root causes of it.

This follow-up post focuses on what marketers can do to improve their newsletters’ worth to readers. It boils down to addressing four main issues:

Too much e-newsletter content is “full of it” – People don’t want to read about how great the company is or other navel gazing-type content that’s completely company-focused.  Instead, offer soft-sell (or no-sell) content that’s truly of value.  Simply ask yourself, “If I weren’t an employee of this company, would I care at all about this topic?”  This exercise applies equally to B2B and B2C newsletters.

Tired writing – There’s nothing more tiresome than a newsletter article that’s filled with corporate-speak or comes across as a patchwork of language from multiple sources.  But this happens all too often.  Sometimes it’s because the writer is overworked and hasn’t had sufficient time to source the article and create a compelling narrative.  Perhaps the author is a non-writer.  Often, it’s simply that the people inside the company love how the copy reads – tin ear or not.  Regardless of the topic of your story, newsletter copy should have personality, and it needs to move.  Otherwise, it’s your reader who’s going to move on.

Gaining an audience – Too many newsletters are playing to an empty house, whether it’s because of an opt-in audience that doesn’t care about you anymore, or from a total lack of visibility in search results or on social media.  Build circulation through in-house databases, optimizing copy to draw in new readers via SEO, and promoting article content through social posts.  Again, these prescriptions work for both consumer and business marketing, although the individual tactics may differ somewhat.

Neglect – It happens way too often:  An e-newsletter initiative begins with great fanfare, but it doesn’t take long for the novelty to wear off.  What starts out as a bi-weekly turns into a monthly or a quarterly, with gaps in between.  Eventually the only thing “regular” about it is its irregularity.  It’s surprising how many corporate websites show links to archived newsletters all the way up to 2016 or 2017 — but then nothing more recent than that.  And we all know what that means …

Wrapping it all up, it’s worth asking this basic question every once in a while: “Is our newsletter any good?” The answer should be unmistakable — if you read your content with a completely open mind.

If you’re involved in your company’s e-newsletter initiatives, do you have any additional insights about what makes for a successful program? Please share them with other readers here.

 

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 …

DMARC’s job of demarcating: How well is it doing?

In the drive to keep the onslaught of fake e-mail communications under control, DMARC’s checks on incoming e-mail is an important weapon in the Internet police’s bag of tricks.  A core weapon of cyber felons is impersonation, which is what catches most unwitting recipients unawares.

So … how is DMARC doing?

Let’s give it a solid C or C+.

DMARC, which stands for Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting and Conformance, is a procedure that checks on the veracity of the senders of e-mail. Nearly 80% of all inboxes – that’s almost 5.5 billion – conduct DMARC checks, and nearly 750,000 domains apply DMARC as well.

Ideally, DMARC is designed to satisfy the following requirements to ensure as few suspicious e-mails as possible make it to the inbox:

  • Minimize false positives
  • Provide robust authentication reporting
  • Assert sender policy at receivers
  • Reduce successful phishing delivery
  • Work at Internet scale
  • Minimize complexity

But the performance picture is actually rather muddy.

According to a new study by cyber-security firm Valimail, people are being served nearly 3.5 billion suspicious e-mails each day. That’s because DMARC’s success rate of ferreting out and quarantining the faux stuff runs only around 20%.  And while America has much better DMARC performance than other countries, the Unites States still accounts for nearly 40% of all suspicious e-mail that makes it through to inboxes due to the shear volume of e-mails involved.

In developing its findings, Valimail analyzed data from billions of authentication requests and nearly 20 million publicly accessible DMARC and SPF (Sender Policy Framework) records.  The Valimail findings also reveal that there’s a pretty big divergence in DMARC usage based on the type of entity. DMARC usage is highest within the U.S. federal government and large technology companies, where it exceeds 20% of penetration.  By contrast, it’s much lower in other commercial segments.

The commercial sector’s situation is mirrored in a survey of ~1,000 e-mail security and white-collar professionals conducted by GreatHorn, a cloud-native communication security platform, which found that nearly one in four respondents receive phishing or other malicious e-mails daily, and an additional ~25% receive them weekly.  These include impersonations, payload attacks, business services spoofing, wire transfer requests, W2 requests and attempts at credential theft.

The GreatHorn study contains this eyebrow-raising finding as well:  ~22% of the businesses surveyed have suffered a breach caused by malicious e-mail in the last quarter alone.  The report concludes:

“There is an alarming sense of complacency at enterprises at the same time that cybercriminals have increased the volume and sophistication of their e-mail attacks.”

Interestingly, in its study Valimail finds that the government has the highest DMARC enforcement success rate, followed by U.S. technology and healthcare firms (but those two sectors lag significantly behind). It may be one of the few examples we have of government performance outstripping private practitioners.

Either way, much work remains to be done in order to reduce faux e-mail significantly more.  We’ll have to see how things improve in the coming months and years.

The wider implications of the “deliver it to my door” mentality.

There’s been quite a bit of attention paid to the impact of online retail on bricks-and-mortar sectors like shopping centers.  More than a few of them have started looking like Potemkin Villages. Some forecasts predict that the number of indoor shopping malls in America will contract by as much as one-third in the coming years.

On the other hand, the changing dynamics of e-tailing are having the opposite effect when it comes to shipping logistics … because not only are consumers shopping online in record numbers, they’re also taking advantage of delivery options that are bringing merchandise directly to them in 24 or 48 hours – even same-day deliveries in some cases.

What this means is that the efficiencies in procurement, inventory and distribution that drove many distribution centers to be built in outlying locations aren’t exactly working in today’s “deliver it to me and deliver it to me now” mindset.

[This is why we’re hearing about solutions such as drone deliveries – but that’s still a ways in the future and could eventually begin to cause congestion in a new realm – up in the air.]

In the meantime, more delivery vehicles than ever are competing with commuter traffic on already-congested highways during peak time periods. A shortage of qualified truckers is spurring development of driverless trucking, while the delivery system as a whole is running at full capacity (if not full efficiency).

Of particular concern is the so-called “last mile” delivery aspect in urban environments. It isn’t merely the issue of traffic congestion.  It’s also city planning codes (outdated), parking restrictions (made even more difficult thanks to the current fad in “progressive” cities of adding bike lanes while removing on-street stopping and parking), and load limitations (adding even more challenges and complexity).

But nature abhors a vacuum, and there are some interesting developments happening to address the challenges. The use of data analytics is growing exponentially, with route maps, GPS data, and real-time expected-versus-actual travel time updates allowing for transport rerouting to happen “in the moment.”

Other novel solutions, such as smart lockers that receive multiple shipments in a central location, plus the use of mobile warehouses within urban areas enabling less reliance on the big remote distribution centers, are emerging.

Burgeoning ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are contributing to more congestion in urban areas – just think how many more ride-sharing vehicles are on the road today compared to taxi cabs in the past. But in rural or remote areas the opposite issue is in play – difficult accessibility.  This is where drone deliveries are a welcome development — including during in the wake of natural disaster occurrences where traditional transportation methods might be impossible — or at the very least highly dangerous.

What are your thoughts about the friction between “convenience and congestion”?  Will technology help us smooth out the rough edges — or are we in for even more frustrations?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

The evolution of e-mail.

It’s all about mobility now.

With the proliferation of mobile screens in both the business and personal environments, it was bound to have an impact on the way that people interact with e-communications.

And now we see the extent.  Recently-released stats from e-mail software and analytics company Litmus in its 2019 State of Email report reveal that ~43% of all e-mails are now being opened on mobile devices.

That compares to ~39% being opened in webmail and just ~18% in desktop applications.

How this is playing out is pretty clear.  People are riffling through e-mails on their mobile devices to determine what to keep and what to delete.  They might come back to the saved e-mails on a different (larger) device, but the first cut is most often via mobile.

This sort of “triage” behavior is happening in the workplace as much as in personal communications.  What it means is that the initial impression an e-mail leaves has to be super-effective like never before. The “from” line and the “subject” line have to work harder than ever to draw the attention of the viewer and avoid a quick consignment to the recycle bin.

Only slightly less important are the first one or two sentences of the e-mail content — particularly for those people who choose to have preview options activated.

It’s putting more emphasis than ever on “mere words” rather than photos, other images or eye-catching design. In an ironic twist, we’ve come full circle and are now back to where it all started with messages hundreds of years ago:  words, words and words.

Another interesting consequence is the second look that some marketers are giving to direct mail, which — although clearly more costly than e-communications – does provide far better way to draw attention of a target audience through design and imagery instead of the quick trip to the trash bin.

The Litmus 2019 State of Email report can be downloaded here.

Is third-party marketing data on life support?

As a marketing professional for the better part of four decades, I can’t imagine any of us doing our jobs without soaking up as much data as possible to help with our decision-making.

And data accessibility is miles ahead of where it was when I first entered the marketing field.  Back in the day, “finding data” meant hitting the reference libraries to access government or other reporting – especially if you were lucky enough to be located within a reasonable distance of one.

There was the phone for real-time information-gathering … and also the FAX machine for quick receipt of “facts in brief” — not to mention the “wait-and-wish-for” mail and package delivery services.

If it was insight you needed from customers or prospects about a new industry or business venture, primary research was always an option — if you had the money and the time to allocate to the effort.

As for “first-party” data, that was available as well – but how often were we at the mercy of the bureaucratic machinations of in-house IT departments to get even basic data requests processed in a timely way?

All of which is to say that marketers have always used data – but the quantity wasn’t as great, while the timeframe of data acquisition was at a snail’s pace compared to today’s reality.

But now, after having become quite spoiled at the availability of all sorts of information, might it be that we’re regressing a little?

In particular, third-party information purchased in bulk, often from data aggregators, seems to be where the backsliding is occurring.

Consider ad targeting and building audiences: We have access to valuable first-party data thanks to website analytics and studying the results of our own e-mail campaigns.

There’s no question that the first- and second-party data which marketers are able to access are highly valuable in that the information creates efficiencies in campaigns and drives higher conversion rates. But theoretically, the ability to layer on accurate third-party data would take things even further.

There’s also been third-party behavioral data from three big behemoths — Google, Facebook and Amazon – that can be used for MarComm targeting purposes. But of those three platforms, just one of them allows third-party data to be made publicly available to end-users.

This poses challenges for the suppliers that aggregate and sell third-party data, as the quantity and quality of their information isn’t on the upswing at all.

Fundamentally, finding a good source for third-party data entails understanding what sources each data aggregator is using and the methodology it employs to collect the data.  Factors of scale, quality, reputation and price also come into play.

But despite best efforts, when testing third-party data for MarComm campaigns and lead-generation efforts the results are often pretty ugly — the data loaded with inaccuracies and basically terrible for efficiency metrics.

It doesn’t help that with the rise of Amazon as yet another “walled garden” of data, the “open web” represents a ever-smaller portion of the total ad spend — and hence also a decreasing amount of the third-party data that’s available to end-users.

With the veracity of third-party data becoming more suspect, it’s had an interesting effect on data management platforms, which are now focusing more on the actual messages themselves and not the “personas” of the people receiving the messages or how they were identified and targeted.

Is it possible for third-party data to provide good information to AI systems — intelligence that can verify and augment the value of the first-party data? If leading ad platforms can use such third-party data to enhance the accuracy and value of what they sell to advertisers, there still may be valuable material to work with.  As it stands, though, I’m not sure that’s the case.

What are your experiences?  Please share your perspectives with other readers here.