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.

Our Visual World

vcThe old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words has ever-greater resonance as time goes on. And when visuals come up against text – it’s really no contest at all.

Marcel Just, PhD, who directs the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA, states the case plainly:

“Processing print isn’t something the human brain was built for. The printed word is a human artifact.  It’s very convenient and it’s worked very well for us for 5,000 years, but it’s an invention of human beings.   

By contrast, Mother Nature has built into our brain our ability to see the visual world and interpret it. Even the spoken language is much more a ‘given’ biologically than reading written language.”

So it’s fundamental that photos, other pictorial graphics and videos are effective with audiences across the board – not just with certain demographics. This universality makes the visual world so much more universal than the world as seen through an “education level” or a “language” prism.

3M Company has done research to attempt to measure this impact quantitatively. It has found that ~90% of all information transmitted to the brain is visual.  And now, the growth of digital communications has provided all sorts of ways to gauge the effectiveness of those visual communications.

Consider these points:

  • Visual content is processed 60,000 times faster than text.
  • Humans retain only about 20% of what they read … just ~10% of what they hear … but ~80% of what they see.
  • ~80% of the text on most pages of content doesn’t get read.
  • Twitter tweets containing images generate ~20 more clickthroughs … ~90% more “favorites” … and ~150% more re-tweets.
  • Social media posts including video clips do dramatically better – outstripping text-only posts by a factor of ten times.

The implications for advertisers couldn’t be clearer. The explosion in digital content only makes it that much more important to catch the audience’s attention, because typically advertisers have only seconds to do so.

And that attention-getting content is going to be visual.

Holiday Sales: “Many Happy Returns”

retHere’s an interesting statistic coming out of the holiday season this year: Nearly one in four consumers has returned at least one of the gifts they received.

For gifts purchased online, returns are an even bigger part of the equation – as in one third of all online gift purchases being returned.

It’s part of a trend that’s growing at a pretty swift pace. In 2014, a total of $285 billion worth of merchandise was returned in the U.S., a 6% increase over the previous year and more than double the growth rate of retail sales as a whole.

Industry observers are expecting higher figures again for 2015 once the stats are fully tallied.

Which holiday gift items tend to be returned most often? In a survey of ~500 U.S. consumers conducted between December 28 and 31, 2015 by mobile app shopping circular developer Retale, the following gift categories were cited most frequently by respondents:

  • Jewelry: ~32%
  • Electronic products: ~29%
  • Gift cards: ~27%
  • Clothes/apparel: ~26%
  • Home décor/home improvement items: ~23%

Consumers may have gravitated to online shopping big-time this past holiday season, but as for the gift return “experience,” it’s pretty clear that consumers continue to prefer making a return at the store (~64%) rather than online (~12%).

Evidently, the “hassle factor” of shipping merchandise back to the seller – not to mention the cost of return shipping if that isn’t offered free of charge – is more onerous than getting in the car and driving to the store outlet.

As for the mountains of merchandise that retailers are having to deal with, it’s caused the growth of an entirely new business niche: reverse logistics firms.

These companies input information on each returned item and determine the most lucrative way for the retailer to dispose of it – which can include sending it to a wholesaler, selling it to a liquidator for scrap, or sending it to a distribution center to be repaired and resold.  Online “refurbished products” stores on Amazon and eBay enable retailers realize up to 70% of an item’s worth by selling those items directly to value-conscious consumers, compared to recouping only 20% or 30% in the past.

It’s part of the action –> reaction aspects of retail that pretty much define this industry.

Consumer E-Mail Marketing: Too Much of a Good Thing?

igAdvertisers often complain about the drawbacks of online display advertising — and it’s not hard to figure out why.

Online display ad viewability, which is defined by the Media Rating Council as at least 50% of an ad’s pixels being in-view for at least one continuous second, is running under 45% these days — meaning that fewer than half of online display ads meet the definition of being viewable.

That’s actually a lower percentage than before; viewability charted closer to 50% in 2014, according to the global media valuation platform Integral Ad Science.

Because of these middling viewability rates, many advertisers look to e-mail marketing as the panacea. Not only is e-mail marketing inexpensive, the rational goes, it’s also more likely to attract and engage recipients.

But here too, the evidence is that there is mediocre visibility, too. And in this case, it’s actual willful ignorance.

According to the results of a study conducted earlier this year by business technology research firm Technology Advice, ~40% of the ~1,300 U.S. adults surveyed reported that they completely ignore marketing-oriented e-mails.

Of the ~60% who reported that they do open marketing e-mails, only a little over 15% do so on a regular basis.

Here’s a breakdown of the underwhelming stats that were gathered by Technology Advice:

  • ~58% of recipients read from 0 to 25% of marketing-oriented e-mails sent to them
  • ~21% read 25% to 50% of the marketing e-mail sent to them
  • ~13% read 50% to 75% of them
  • Just ~8% read 75% to 100% of them

In an attempt to “juice” these figures, marketers are experimenting with robust personalization in e-mails that become evident even before anyone opens them (e.g., personalization showing in the subject line), along with offering clearly marked discounts and other promo attractions.

In this regard, consumers do expect businesses to provide “value” in exchange for their attention, which explains by ~40% of the survey’s respondents are responding to discounts and similar promotional offers above all other types of e-communiqués.

But with such modest levels of people interacting with any marketing-oriented e-mails at all, there’s a question as to how whether these ploys to improvement engagement are just nibbling around the edges.

Because the reality is, there’s a big portion of the market that’s become jaded about e-mail.

Another approach seems counter-intuitive but just might be working better: reducing the frequency of e-mail solicitations from advertisers.  That theory is supported by the Technology Advice research, which found that nearly 45% of respondents feel that businesses would improve their marketing effectiveness by actually sending them less frequent e-mails.

A case of “less is more”? Probably so.

Marketing Technology: Is “Implosion” Where We’re Headed?

A chart of just some of the major marketing technology platforms -- and this is as of 2013!
A chart of just some of the major marketing technology platforms — and this was in 2013!

It seems that with each passing day, one or two new technology products are announced by MediaPost and other publishers in the marketing field.

The numbers tell the story. The marketing technology industry website lists nearly 1,900 marketing technology vendors in more than 40 categories.

That’s nearly double last year’s tally of around 950 vendors.

Software clearinghouse Capterra lists even more: a whopping 3,000+ marketing technology products across 30 categories.

These firms account for well over $20 billion in financing – the dollars that can be tracked, that is – including around 30 companies that are valued at $1 billion or more each.

That’s a lot of companies and vendors. Of course, there are many customers who are looking for tech-driven marketing solutions as well.  The question is whether things have gotten out of balance.

Business writer and marketing tech specialist Malcom Friedberg thinks so. He’s Chief Marketing Officer at CleverTap, and he also publishes columns on a variety of business topics.

In Friedberg’s view, the sheer number of marketing technology vendors and products means that the segment may now be on the brink of an implosion.

Friedman references a recent CMO Council document that reports that more than 80% of marketers are using as many as ten different marketing-related technologies or cloud solutions.

And as new technologies are added, the problem is finding educated staff – and enough hours in the day – to cover all of these products well. In many instances, users may be just scratching the surface of what these products can provide; the “multiple hat” dynamics of many marketing departments mean that very few people qualify as being “advanced” users.

The problems boil down to this: Even if a department has two or three marketing people devoted exclusively to tech-related responsibilities (at tall order in most companies) – this assumes that those people can work equally well on multiple different platforms.

The reality is quite different. It’s more like a big jumble – with consultants brought in to sort things out.  It may get the job done, but it isn’t pretty – and it’s hardly a recipe for “the best of best practices.”

Survey work by the CMO Council supports this hypothesis. The Council has found that fewer than on in ten of the marketers it surveyed reported that they possess a highly evolved digital marketing model that has a proven, clear path of evolution.

Malcolm Friedberg
Malcolm Friedberg

Friedman thinks he knows where things are heading. Not to more choices, but rather to less:

“In my opinion, we’ll start to see massive consolidation and uber-marketing systems. Think super-integrated marketing and advertising clouds … the preoccupation with ‘best-of-breed’ in every category will be replaced by a ‘tree-and-branch’ model, with one core technology and a few ‘good enough’ complementary ones.”

Friedman calls it “an expensive French meal” instead of “a Vegas buffet.” While there will always be new products promising incremental improvements, he predicts that by 2020, the common business model will be super-integrated marketing and advertising clouds as we see already with the likes of Marketo and Hubspot.

What do you think? Is Friedman onto something … or is the orgy of new marketing technology products going to continue unabated?  Please share your thoughts with other viewers here.