More raps for Google on the “fake reviews” front.

Google’s trying to not have its local search initiative devolve into charges and counter-charges of “fake news” à la the most recent U.S. presidential election campaign – but is it trying hard enough?

It’s becoming harder for the reviews that show up on Google’s local search function to be considered anything other than “suspect.”

The latest salvo comes from search expert and author Mike Blumenthal, whose recent blog posts on the subject question Google’s willingness to level with its customers.

Mr. Blumenthal could be considered one of the premiere experts on local search, and he’s been studying the phenomenon of fake information online for nearly a decade.

The gist of Blumenthal’s argument is that Google isn’t taking sufficient action to clean up fake reviews (and related service industry and affiliate spam) that appear on Google Maps search results, which is one of the most important utilities for local businesses and their customers.

Not only that, but Blumenthal also contends that Google is publishing reports which represent “weak research” that “misleads the public” about the extent of the fake reviews problem.

Mike Blumenthal

Google contends that the problem isn’t a large one. Blumenthal feels differently – in fact, he claims the problem as growing worse, not getting better.

In a blog article published this week, Blumenthal outlines how he’s built out spreadsheets of reviewers and the businesses on which they have commented.

From this exercise, he sees a pattern of fake reviews being written for overlapping businesses, and that somehow these telltale signs have been missed by Google’s algorithms.

A case in point: three “reviewers” — “Charlz Alexon,” “Ginger Karime” and “Jen Mathieu” — have all “reviewed” three very different businesses in completely different areas of the United States:  Bedoy Brothers Lawn & Maintenance (Nevada), Texas Car Mechanics (Texas), and The Joint Chiropractic (Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina).

They’re all 5-star reviews, of course.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that “Charlz Alexon,” “Ginger Karime” and “Jen Mathieu” won’t be found in the local telephone directories where these businesses are located. That’s because they’re figments of some spammer-for-hire’s imagination.

The question is, why doesn’t Google develop procedures to figure out the same obvious answers Blumenthal can see plain as day?

And the follow-up question: How soon will Google get serious about banning reviewers who post fake reviews on local search results?  (And not just targeting the “usual suspect” types of businesses, but also professional sites such as physicians and attorneys.)

“If their advanced verification [technology] is what it takes to solve the problem, then stop testing it and start using it,” Blumenthal concludes.

To my mind, it would be in Google’s own interest to get to the bottom of these nefarious practices. If the general public comes to view reviews as “fake, faux and phony,” that’s just one step before ceasing to use local search results at all – which would hurt Google in the pocketbook.

Might it get Google’s attention then?

In copywriting, it’s the KISS approach on steroids today.

… and it means “Keep It Short, Stupid” as much as it does “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”

Regardless of the era, most successful copywriters and ad specialists have always known that short copy is generally better-read than long.

And now, as smaller screens essentially take over the digital world, the days of copious copy flowing across a generous preview pane area are gone.

More fundamentally, people don’t have the screen size – let along the patience – to wade through long copy. These days, the “sweet spot” in copy runs between 50 and 150 words.

Speaking of which … when it comes to e-mail subject lines, the ideal length keeps getting shorter and shorter. Research performed by SendGrid suggests that it’s now down to an average length of about seven words for the subject line.

And the subject lines that get the best engagement levels are a mere three or four words.

So it’s KISS on steroids: keeping it short as well as simple.

Note: The article copy above comes in at under 150 words …!

All those narratives about Amazon? They’re not exactly accurate.

abI doubt I know a single person under the age of 75 who hasn’t purchased at least one item of merchandise from Amazon over the years. And I know quite a few people whose only shopping experience for the holidays is a date with the Amazon website.

Still, some of the breathless stories and statistics that are put forward about Amazon and its business model seem almost too impressive to be true.

I’m not just talking about news reports of drone deliveries (a whole lot of “hat” and far less “cattle” there) or the idea that fully-robotic warehouses are just around the corner – although these stories do make for attention-grabbing headlines.  (Despite the continued need for human involvement, the way that robots are being used inside Amazon warehouses is still quite impressive.)

Moreover, a study published recently by BloomReach based on a survey of ~2,200 U.S. online consumers finds that Amazon is involved in most online shopping excursions, with nine out of ten online shoppers reporting that they check Amazon’s site even if they end up finding the product they want via another e-commerce resource.

More than half of the BloomReach survey respondents reports that they check on the Amazon site first — which is a new high for the company.

But are all of the reports about Amazon as credible?

Doug Garnett
Doug Garnett

Recently Doug Garnett, CEO of advertising agency Atomic Direct, penned a piece that was published in the December 2016 edition of Response Magazine. In it, he threw a dose of cold-water reality on some of the narratives surrounding Amazon and its business accomplishments.

Here are several of them that seem to contradict some of the commonly held perceptions:

“Amazon is a $100 billion retailer.”

Garnett notes that once subtracting Amazon’s non-retail revenue for 2015 (the last year for which financial data is available), the worldwide figure is more like half of that.

In the United States, Amazon’s retail sales are closer to $25 billion, which means it makes up approximately 6% of total retail sales.

That’s still very significant, but it isn’t the dominating presence as it might seem from all of the press hype.

“Amazon is profitable now.”

Yes, it is – and that’s after many years when the company wasn’t. However, approximately three-fourths of Amazon’s profits are due to selling cloud-based services, and the vast majority of the remaining profit dollars come from content delivery such as e-books plus music and video downloads.  So traditional retail hard-goods still aren’t generating profits for Amazon.

It turns out, just as retailers like Wal-Mart, Target and K-Mart have discovered, that replicating a retail store online is almost always a money-losing proposition.

To underscore this point, Garnett references this example of a merchandising campaign in 2016 as typical:

“When one unit was sold on Amazon, eight were sold at the retailer’s website and 80 were sold in the brick-and-mortar stores. The profit is in the store. 

For mass-market products, brick-and-mortar still dominates. Amazon is a nice incremental revenue stream, [but] not a valid alternative when you’re playing in the big game.”

It also means that companies that are looking to Amazon as a way to push their products into the marketplace should probably think twice.

At the very least, they should keep their expectations realistically modest.

E-Mail Marketing: On the Subject of Subject Lines …

emWith groaning inboxes, is it any wonder why so many e-mail messages get ignored by their recipients?

Indeed, with it costing so little to send an e-mail – especially when compared to the “bad old days” of postal mail – it’s too irresistible for marketers and others to deploy hundreds or thousands of e-mail missives at a pop, even if the resulting engagement levels are so paltry.

And therein lies the problem: The “value” of such e-mails diminish to the point where recipients have a very good idea of their (lack of) worthiness without needing to open them.

In such an environment, what’s the the likelihood of something important inadvertently slipping through the cracks? Not so great.  And so users go on their merry way, hitting the delete key with abandon.

Faced with these realities, anything senders can do to improve the odds of their e-mails being opened is worth considering.

As it turns out, some of those odds can be improved by focusing on the e-mail’s subject line.

We know this from research conducted recently by e-mail platform provider Yesware. As reported this week in Fast Company, Yesware’s data scientists took a look at ~115 million e-mails of all kinds, gathered over the course of a 12-month period, to see how open rate dynamics might be affected positively or negatively by differences in the subject line.

ywThe Yesware analysis was carried by analyzing most- and least-used words and formats to determine which ones appeared to be more effective at “juicing” open rates.

As the benchmark, the overall e-mail open rate observed across all 115 million e-mails was 51.9% and the overall reply rate was about 29.8%. But underneath those averages are some differences that can be useful for marketers as they consider how to construct different subject lines for better impact and recipient engagement.

The findings from Yesware’s subject line analysis point to several practices that should be avoided:

Subject line personalization actually works against e-mail engagement.

It may seem counterintuitive, but adding personalization to an e-mail subject turns out to suppress the open rate from 51.9% to 48.1% — and the reply rate goes down even more dramatically from 29.8% to 21.2%.

Yesware surmises that this seemingly clever but now overused technique bears telltale signs of a sales solicitation. No one likes to be fooled for long … and every time one of these “personalized” missives hits the inbox, the recipient likely recalls the very first time he or she expected to open a personal e-mail based on such a subject line – only to be duped.

“First time, shame on you; second time, shame on me.”

Turning your subject line into a question … is a questionable practice.

Using a question mark in a subject line may seem like a good way to add extra curiosity or interest to an e-mail, but it turns out to be a significant turnoff for many recipients. In fact, Yesware found that when a question mark is used in the subject line, the open rate drops a full 10 percentage points (from 51.9% to 41.6%) – and the reply rate also craters (dropping to 18.4%).

It may be that turning a subject line into a question has the effect of reducing the power of the message. Yesware data engineer Anna Holschuh notes that posing a question is “asking a lot of an already-busy, stressed-out professional.  You’re asking them to do work without providing value up front.”

On the other hand, two subject line practices have been shown to improve e-mail open rates – at least to a degree:

Include numbers in the subject line.

Subject lines that contain “hard” numbers appear to improve the e-mail open rate slightly. Yesware found that open rates in such cases were 53.2% compared to 51.9% and the reply rate improved as well (to 32%).  Using precise numbers – the more specific the better – can add an extra measure of credibility to the e-mail, which is a plus in today’s data-rich environment.

Use title case rather than sentence case.

Similarly, Yesware has found that the “authority” conveyed by using title case (initial caps on the key words) in e-mail subject lines helps them perform better than when using the more informal sentence case structure.

The difference? Open rates that have title case subject lines came in at 54.3%, whereas when using sentence case in the subject line resulted in open rates at just 47.6%.

Similarly, reply rates were 32.3% for e-mails with subject lines using title case compared to 25.7% for e-mails where the subject line was sentence case — an even more substantial difference.

Generally speaking, e-mail marketing succeeds or fails at the margins, which is why it’s so important to “calibrate” things like subject lines for maximum advantage. The Yesware analysis demonstrates how those tweaks can add up to measurable performance improvements.

Tech meets traditional: Digital marketing drives more phone calls by far.

CCIn a classic case of marrying tech with traditional marketing, digital channels are driving more calls to businesses than ever before.

What’s more, digital channels are now responsible for nine out of ten phone calls made to companies as a result of promotional efforts using the ten most popular marketing channels.

These findings come from the 2016 Call Intelligence Index published by Invoca, a phone call tracking and analytics firm that evaluates phone call activity across 40 industry segments.

Invoca’s 2016 evaluation covers more than 58 million phone calls generated from ten marketing channels — six of them digital and four of them “traditional offline” channels.

According to Invoca’s analysis, the biggest single source of phone queries is mobile search — representing nearly half of all phone call volume. But the next five channels that follow in line are all digital as well, as can be seen in this list:

  • INMobile search: Drives 48% of phone calls to businesses from marketing channels
  • Desktop search: 17%
  • Desktop display advertising: 11%
  • Content / review websites: 9%
  • Mobile display advertising: 3%
  • E-mail marketing: 3%
  • Total digital channels: 91%

 

  • Radio advertising: 3%
  • TV advertising/infomercials: 2%
  • Newspaper advertising: 2%
  • Directory advertising: 2%
  • Total non-digital channels: 9%

Comparing the 2016 results against a similar analysis conducted by Invoca in 2014, digital marketing channels have continued to rise in prominence — from representing 84% of the total phone call activity to 91% today.

The Invoca research also finds that phone calls are supplementing digital interactions, which is the result of consumers shifting between various different digital channels as they go about their research — often employing several different ones during the same mission task.

One of the biggest jumps in digital channel usage is in the automotive segment, where it’s clear that a big shift is underway from offline to digital channels — particularly mobile. The automotive industry experienced nearly a 120% increase in digital sources driving phone calls in the current Invoca research compared to the previous one.

So there’s no question that digital now “rules” when it comes to marketing channels. But far from causing the demise of a traditional channel like a phone call — as some people predicted not so long ago — digital channels have simply changed where the consumer might be just prior to heading for the (smart)phone.

Antisocial behavior: Major retailers do much better broadcasting on social media than they do responding.

untitledWhen it comes to social media, it turns out that the major U.S. retail brands are a lot better at dishing it out than consuming it.

On the “dishing out” side of the ledger, these retailers have been posting an ever-increasing number of social messages aimed at their target audiences.

A recent report from Sprout Social Index titled Snubbed on Social shows just how much:  In the 3rd Quarter of 2014, the average number of messages deployed by the typical major retailer was around 150, but in the 3rd Quarter of 2015, the number had grown to in excess of 350.

But what happens when these retailers are on the receiving end of social messages? Sprout Social has determined that the typical retailer receives around 1,500 inbound social messages over a busy quarter (such as during the holiday season).

Of these, approximately 40% of the messages are ones that warrant a response.

But only about 1 in 6 – fewer than 20% of them — actually get one.

And those consumers who are fortunate enough to receive a response are waiting approximately 12 hours to get it. That’s up from ~11 hours a year earlier.

One interesting factoid from the Sprout Social reporting is that customer messages on Twitter tend to get a better response from brands.

But it’s the difference between merely poor (~14% on Twitter) and downright embarrassing (~9% on Facebook).

untitledScott Brandt, chief marketing officer at Sprout Social, states it succinctly: “More often than not, brands are silent when their customers reach out.”

What are the implications of this (non-)behavior?

For one thing, interacting with customers helps drive more interesting and more purchases.  Sprout reports that consumers are seven times more likely to respond to social promotions and other social news if they have had meaningful interaction with the brand.

Obviously, ignoring the social messages that come through isn’t the way to build that engagement.

One dynamic that appears to be at work is that brands continue to use social media as a vehicle for broadcast messaging, whereas many consumers view social platforms as the place for a more conversational, two-way level of engagement.

You know – just like social media is supposed to work.

But there are some seemingly intractable reasons why it’s difficult to put the “theory” of social interaction into “practice.”

For starters, there are so many ways for people to communicate with companies and brands today (versus only by letter, phone or in person not that many years ago), that too many businesses are either stretched to thin or simply don’t feel the need to respond urgently if at all.

Another issue is similarly personnel-related. For brands to respond better would mean hiring and training people who possess the authorization to actually do something about a question or concern.  Low-level staff with low wages and benefits and with no authority to resolve issues is a clear ticket to nowhere.

At the very least, putting a process in place that provides a quick response to all inquiries – even if the initial response is auto-generated – is just plain common sense. The value to the consumer of a response that comes within just a few minutes – even if the message was posted in the dead of night – is what makes consumers bond with a brand.  (Just having their existence validated is huge for some people.)

Contrast that to the other, more common experience of brands ignoring their consumers to death … and where people never forget which companies aren’t good at responding to their questions or concerns. Does anyone think that reputation doesn’t have a dampening effect on sales?

More information about the Spout Social Index can be found here.