In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, where are trade shows headed?

For those of us in marketing and sales – particularly involved in the commercial market segments – the COVID-19 pandemic brought the function of tradeshow marketing to a screeching halt, as one event after another in 2020 was either canceled outright or “re-imagined” as a digital-only program.

The impact on the convention business has been severe — and it’s had ripple effects throughout the wider market as well.  As Tori Barnes, head of public affairs and policy at the U.S. Travel Association, has noted:

“When a large convention or event is happening, the entire city is involved.  Whole downtowns have been revitalized due to the meeting and events business, and they’ve really struggled this past year.”

But now that COVID vaccines have been approved and are beginning to be distributed, the question is, “What’s the road back for trade shows?”  Will they return to the “old normal,” or are they forever changed?

Those issues were studied recently by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR), which posed a group of questions to ~350 executives of exhibition-organizing companies.  The results of the CEIR research suggest that the future of trade shows will likely be a hybrid model of digital and in-person event activities — often as part of the same program.

According to the CEIR findings, “education” was the biggest driver of virtual events run during 2020 – and by a big margin.  When asked to cite the most important reason organizers think that professionals attended their virtual events, the top three responses were:

  • Education for professional or personal development:  ~33%
  • To keep up-to-date with industry trends:  ~11%
  • To fulfill professional certification requirements:  ~10%

Collectively representing ~54% of the respondents, it would seem that all three of these reasons lend themselves equally well to digital events as to in-person meetings.  Indeed, in some cases virtual events might be preferable in the sense that digital presentations can be viewed multiple times, if desired, for educational purposes.

By contrast, three other reasons were cited that are generally better-realized through in-person trade shows or  conferences.  But collectively they were mentioned far less frequently by the respondents:

  • To see or experience new technology and/or new products:  ~9%
  • Professional networking:  ~8%
  • The ability to engage with experts:  4%

From the vantage point of their experience in 2020, only a small minority of the exhibiting-organizing company respondents to the CEIR survey research reported that they planned to discontinue virtual-event efforts once the pandemic subsides (just 22%). 

A much larger percentage – nearly 70% — anticipate that virtual/digital activities will remain (or become) a bigger component of their events going forward.  In other words, hybrid events. 

It would seem to be the best solution all-around for future trade show success.  Offering more digital options within a larger event program will enable people who aren’t able to participate in-person due to schedule conflicts, or simply because of the unease or hassle of traveling to them, to actually do so.

The experience of 2020’s virtual events also suggest that there are some notable differences in terms of event size and duration — namely, virtual events tend to be smaller in size and shorter in duration than a similar in-person event:

  • The average session length of an in-person education event was 70 minutes, compared to under 60 minutes for a like digital event.

  • The average number of hours per day for an in-person event was eight, versus just six for a virtual gathering.

Another finding of interest from the CEIR research pertains to which industry segments the exhibition-organizing personnel consider most open to embracing digital event tools.  More than four in five respondents felt that virtual events in the finance/insurance/real estate segments will become an ever-increasing component of physical events in the future.  It was nearly as high – 74% — for events happening in the field of education.

No doubt, we’ll be learning more about the changing dynamics of trade shows over the coming 12- to 24-month period.  As we await the “larger perspective” to emerge, what are your thoughts about how your own personal participation in trade shows will change — and will those changes be temporary or permanent? Please share your perspectives with other readers here.

The difference between influencer marketing and true word-of-mouth advertising.

The next time you see a celebrity spokesperson speaking about a product or a service … don’t think much of it. Chances are, the celebrity isn’t doing a whole lot to increase a company’s sales or enhance its brand image.

We have affirmation of this trend from ExpertVoice, a marketing firm that has queried consumers on the issue of who they trust most for recommendations on what products and services to buy.

ExpertVoice’s findings confirm that while celebrity endorsements do raise awareness, typically that awareness fails to move the needle in terms of sales. Just ~4% of the participants in ExpertVoice’s research reported that they trust celebrity endorsements.  (And even that percentage is juiced by professional athletes who are more influential than other celebrities.)

As for the reason for the lack of trust, more than half of the respondents noted concerns about the money these spokespeople receive from the brands they’re endorsing. Consumers are wise to the practice – and they reject the notion that the endorser has anything other than personal enrichment in mind.

By way of comparison, here are how celebrities stack up against others when it comes to influencing consumer purchases:

Trust recommendations from friends/family members: ~83% of respondents

… from a professional expert (e.g., instructor or coach): ~54%

… from a co-worker: ~52%

… from a retail salesperson: ~42%

… from a professional athlete: ~6%

… from any other kind of celebrity: ~2%

As it turns out, people are more influenced by good, old-fashioned word-of-mouth testimonials from individuals who are making recommendations based on their actual experience with the products in question.

Moreover, if the endorsement is coming from someone they know personally, they’re even likelier to be swayed.

In a crowded marketplace full of many purchase choices, consumers are looking for trusted recommendations. That means something a lot more authentic than a celebrity endorser.  Considering the amount of money companies and brands have had to pony up for celebrity pitches, it seems an opportune time for marketers to be looking at alternative methods to influence their audiences.

What exactly are “good results” with email marketing?

In my work in marketing communications, I’m asked pretty often what expectations are realistic for a successful e-mail marketing initiative.  While the goal is to achieve as much engagement as possible, the reality of overflowing e-mail inboxes means that engagement may never rise to the level we would like it to be.

So, it’s good to know what “reasonable expectations” might be.  And for that, we can look to evidence gathered by Campaign Monitor, a leading e-mail marketing platform. Based on analyzing actions and engagement on the millions of e-mail campaigns deployed from its platform, Campaign Monitor has assembled performance benchmarks for a number of industries, and they are instructive.

In broad terms, here are the average metrics Campaign Monitor has compiled across all of the industries it has studied:

  • Open rate: ~17.9%
  • Click-to-open rate: ~14.1%
  • Clickthrough rate: ~2.7%
  • Bounce rate: ~1.0%
  • Unsubscribe rate: ~0.2%

So … a campaign that may seem at first blush to be doing only a middling job might actually be performing noticeably better than many others.

Across the various industries evaluated by Campaign Monitor, it turns out that the “gap” between the best-performing open rate averages and the lowest ones isn’t all that great.  The top-performing category is not-for-profit organizations, where the average open rate is ~20.4%.  At the low end of the scale is government entities, where the average open rate is ~15.1%.

As for the best-performing days of the week to deploy e-mails, open rate stats are strongest on Thursdays, while the best performance on clickthrough rates is Tuesday.

These benchmarks are informative, but for many marketers an equally important measure of performance will be to compare against their own past results as the baseline.  That could well be a more realistic (and easier) way to determine what success actually looks like for a particular company or brand and its products.

What sort of metrics are you seeing in your own segment of industry?  How do they stack up against the overall metrics that Campaign Monitor has compiled? Please share your observations with other viewers here.

Fair weather friends? Consumers tie loyalty programs to getting discounts and freebies.

As more consumers than ever before have gravitated online to do their shopping, loyalty programs continue to grow in importance.

But what do consumers really want out of these loyalty programs?

The short answer to that question is “freebies and discounts,” the Loyalty Barometer Report from HelloWorld, an arm of Merkle, makes clear.

Of the ~1,500 U.S. consumers polled, ~77% of the respondents said they expected benefits for their loyalty to be in the way of free products, and an almost-equal percentage (~75%) expect to be offered special offers or discounts.

As for the most important reasons people participate in loyalty programs, the Merkle survey reveals that most people take a purely “transactional” approach to them.  Discounts and free products far outweigh other considerations:

  • Participation to receive discounts or offers: ~43% of respondents cited as the most important reason
  • To earn free products: ~27%
  • To gain access to exclusive rewards: ~10%
  • To receive members-only benefits: ~9%
  • To stay connected to a “brand I love”: ~6%
  • Other factors: ~5%

Notice how far down the list “brand love” falls.

As for negative aspects of reward programs, it turns out that there are a number of those.  The following five factors were cited most often by the survey respondents:

  • It takes too long to earn a reward: ~54% cited
  • It’s too difficult to earn a reward: ~39%
  • Receiving too many communications: ~36%
  • The rewards aren’t very valuable: ~32%
  • Worries about personal information security: ~29%

[For more details from the Merkle report, you can access a summary of findings here.]

The results of the Merkle survey suggest that rewards programs may be more “transactional” in nature than many brand managers would like them to be.  But perhaps that’s happened because of the very way the loyalty programs have been structured. When loyalty marketing is focused on discounts, it’s likely to drive transactions without necessarily engendering much if any actual customer loyalty.

On the other hand, if we define customer loyalty as when people are willing to pay a premium, or go out of their way to purchase a particular brand’s product or service, that represents a significantly smaller group companies than the plethora of companies offering loyalty programs to their customers.

Which brands do you consider to be true loyalty leaders?  A few that come to my mind are Amazon, American Express and Nike — but what others might you posit?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

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.

Virtual Meetings: Will the COVID-19 virus accelerate a trend?

One of the big repercussions of the Coronavirus scare has been to shift most companies into a world where significant numbers of their employees are working from home. Whereas working remotely might have been an occasional thing for many of these workers in the past, now it’s the daily reality.

What’s more, personal visits to customers and attendance at meetings or events have been severely curtailed.

This “new reality” may well be with us for the coming months – not merely weeks as some reporting has indicated. But more fundamentally, what does it mean for the long-term?

I think it’s very possible that we’re entering a new era of how companies work and interact with their customers that’s permanent more than it is temporary. The move towards working remotely had been advancing (slowly) over the years, but COVID-19 is the catalyst that will accelerate the trend.

Over the coming weeks, companies are going to become pretty adept at figuring out how to work successfully without the routine of in-person meetings. Moving even small meetings to virtual-only events is the short-term reality that’s going to turn into a long-term one.

When it comes to client service strategies, these new approaches will gain a secure foothold not just because they’re necessary in the current crisis, but because they’ll prove themselves to work well and to be more cost-efficient than the old ways of doing business. Along the same lines, professional conferences in every sector are being postponed or cancelled – or rolled into online-only events.  This means that “big news” about product launches, market trends and data reporting are going to be communicated in ways that don’t involve a “big meeting.”

Social media and paid media will likely play larger roles in broadcasting the major announcements that are usually reserved for the year’s biggest meeting events. Harnessing techniques like animation, infographics and recorded presentations will happen much more than in the past, in order to turn information that used to be shared “in real life” into compelling and engaging web content.

The same dynamics are in play for formerly in-person sales visits. The “forced isolation” of social distancing will necessitate presentations and product demos being done via online meetings during the coming weeks and months. Once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, in-person sales meetings at the customer’s place of business will return – but can we realistically expect that they will go back to the levels that they were before?

Likely not, as companies begin to realize that “we can do this” when it comes to conducting business effectively while communicating remotely. What may be lost in in-person meeting dynamics is more than made up for in the convenience and cost savings that “virtual” sales meetings can provide.

What do you think? Looking back, will we recognize the Coronavirus threat as the catalyst that changed the “business as usual” of how we conduct business meetings?  Or will today’s “new normal” have returned to the “old normal” of life before the pandemic?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

The New World of PR

Companies work to find their place in the changing ecosystem — some more effectively than others.

For those of us who have been active  in the marketing communications industry over the past few decades, there’s been a sea change in how the industry operates — not least in the realm of PR and media relations.

One of the underlying reasons for this change is the dramatic shift that’s happened in the field of journalism. Traditional media companies which have long relied on professional reporters and editorial contributors have been dealing with a range of existential threats.  Print circulation has sagged while audiences have fragmented over a plethora of digital content publishers — most of which offer news and information free of charge.

At the same time, publishers’ revenues from advertising have plummeted as the media inventory has expanded to encompass the new digital content publishers.  The bottom-line impact of these twin developments is that it has become much more difficult for traditional media companies to employ the same number of staff reporters; indeed, many publishers have shrunk their newsrooms while relying increasingly on independent contributors and freelancers to fill in the gaps.

But the situation gets even more complicated thanks to the evolution of digital media and the explosive growth of self-publishing platforms. The reality is that there’s a new class of authors who are increasingly publishing from their own platforms, without being involved with any of the major media outlets.

In such a world, the notion of PR departments simply keeping in close touch with a limited number of key journalists as the most effective way of gaining earned media coverage seems almost quaint.

And it gets even more problematic when considering how much easier it is for businesses to prepare and disseminate PR news. At their best, PR pitches rely on the same tools as marketing in general: profiling the audience; personalizing the news pitch, and so forth.

The problem is, according to the U.S. Bureau of Census, there are now more than six PR pros for every journalist. This means that more PR news releases than ever are hitting the inboxes of far fewer journalists and reporters.

Is it any wonder that PR news released by companies is so often being ignored?

According to a recent survey of ~1,000 journalists by PR Newswire, the following aspects of PR pitches are the most annoying to reporters and journalists:

  • Too much overt “marketing” in the pitch
  • Lack of relevant or useful content
  • Unclear or misleading subject lines on e-emails
  • Insufficient news detail

On the other hand, some aspects help in a PR pitch, including:

  • High-resolution photography
  • Video clips
  • Infographics

In today’s PR landscape, obtaining earned media is more difficult than ever. These days, not only do you need a great story to tell, you need to craft the perfect narrative. And even then, you might never get the news covered by a so-called “Tier 1” publication.

But missing out on Tier 1 coverage isn’t necessarily the kiss of death. Sometimes the lower tier represents the best targeted audience to receive news from companies. Moreover, by employing low-cost self-publishing tools, a decent social media strategy plus some basic search engine optimization, it’s actually possible to build an audience and garner as many well-targeted readers as those elusive Tier 1 pubs might be able to deliver.

In the new world of PR, the “tried and true” avenues to earned media coverage aren’t getting the job done.  But there are more routes than ever to get the news out instead of having to channel your efforts to go through the gate-keepers of yore.

A Marketer’s Resolution for the New Year

Note: Those of you who are regular readers of my marketing and culture blog have noticed that it “went dark” for a period of time over the past month or so.  The twin developments of health issues plus a death in the family (my mother, at the age of 96-and-a-half years), meant that I needed to be focused on recuperation and also estate matters.  But I’m back … and hopefully back to my regular schedule of posting.

For my final blog post of 2019, it comes in the form of a resolution for us marketers. It’s to finally acknowledge how little “upside potential” there actually is for social media to build or maintain a brand presence … and instead to place renewed focus on tactics that’ll actually deliver a more measurable ROI.

Most of my business clients have put a degree of effort into social media over the years – some with more focus and fortitude than others. But whether the campaigns have been “full speed ahead” or only half-hearted, invariably the end-result seems to be the same:  a sales needle that hardly moves, if at all.

Moreover, social media takes a deceptively significant amount of effort for that little bit of payoff. Companies that put in the effort devote human capital and in some cases substantive dollar resources to tap outside support, but frequently the results aren’t any more impactful than for our clients who merrily go on ignoring social medial platforms, year after year.  At least when looking at bottom-line sales.

Plus, in our highly sensitized world, these days it seems that when social media actually has an impact, more often than not it’s a negative one.  Too often it’s the sorry end-result of some sort of faux pas where even the best-laid plans for departmental or legal review aren’t carried out fully and the brand gets into trouble. (Sometimes that happens even with all of the checks and balances in place and being carried out religiously.)

So for 2020, we marketers could well be better off acknowledging how thin the promise of social media actually is.  We should ignore the siren calls of “likes” and “engagement” and stop chasing the phantom pot of gold at the end of the phantom rainbow. Chances are, your company’s bottom line will look just as strong, even as you focus more of your time and budget on marketing activities that’ll actually make a positive difference.

What are your thoughts on social media for brands? Please share them with other readers here.

Amazon is poised to become America’s single biggest retailer, outpacing Walmart.

It’s a measure of how much the American retail landscape has changed in the past decade that Amazon is poised to overtake Walmart as the largest U.S. retailed by 2022.

That prediction comes from a recently published report from market research firm Packaged Facts.

As of today, Packaged Facts estimates that Amazon makes up ~43% of all U.S. e-commerce sales, which is dramatically higher than its ~28% share just four years ago. Continuing its growth trajectory, by 2022 Amazon is expected to make up nearly half of all U.S. e-commerce sales.

That degree of concentration will make it bigger than Walmart — even considering the latter’s huge brick-and-mortar presence which Amazon lacks.

Of course, Walmart continues to possess additional advantages that Amazon cannot match, despite the latter’s acquisition of supermarket chain Whole Foods in 2017. Not only does Walmart have a huge physical footprint in retail, it also offers a wide range of in-store services which entice foot traffic — things like an onsite pharmacy, financial services, and photo processing.

Also working in Walmart’s favor is its dominance in so-called “click-and-collect” shopping orders. According to recent surveys, ~43% of respondents identified Walmart as the pickup location for their last click-and-collect order — three times the share percentage of runner-up Target.

Still, the emergence of Amazon atop the retail industry heap says volumes about the seismic shifts brought about by online retail. The channel hasn’t been around all that long in the grand scheme of things, but its impact has been nothing short of seismic.

How have your shopping habits changed during this time? Do they reflect what has happened in the larger market? Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

How the psychology of color “colors” the effectiveness of websites.

As one of the five senses, sight is usually mentioned first. And little wonder, if we consider what an integral part of our life’s experience is based on what we see.

Color is a huge part of that — and it goes beyond “sight” as well. We use color not only to pinpoint a place on the visible spectrum, but also to describe intangible factors such as emotions and character traits.

Ever wonder why people talk about “orchestral color”? This seeming contradiction in terms is actually one of the fundamental ways we can “see” music in our minds as well as hear it in our ears. The Russian composer Alexander Scriabin went so far as to associate individual colors on the visual spectrum with specific musical chords; the colors themselves are written into the score for his last orchestral piece, his Fifth Symphony (Prometheus: The Poem of Fire), composed in 1910.

Alexander Scriabin

Recognizing the importance of color and its impact on how humans think and behave, marketers and branding specialists have long made use of the power of color in advertising and design. This continues today in the digital world of websites and other electronic media, where the choice of colors has measurable impact on website engagement and conversions.

Marketing and design specialist Raj Vardhman has compiled a number of interesting facts about the “psychology of color” and its impact on viewer engagement:

  • It takes approximately 90 seconds for a viewer to make a quick product assessment — and two-thirds of this judgment is based on color.
  • Color is a key reason for selecting a particular product. For instance, two-thirds of shoppers won’t purchase a large appliance if it isn’t available in their preferred color.
  • The classic notion of “pink for girls” and “blue for boys” turns out to be generally true (despite the penchant for choosing yellow when a family doesn’t want to “channel” their newborn towards a particular gender identity). Bold colors or shades of blue, black and darker green are preferred by most men, whereas more women prefer soft colors or tints of purple, pink, rose and lighter green.

Furthermore, attitudinal studies show that main color groups convey certain characteristics:

  • Red embodies life, excitement and boldness. It’s used often in iconic consumer brands, but also to announce clearance sales.
  • Blue telegraphs productivity, tranquility and trust. Is it any wonder that blue colors are the hands-down favorite among commercial/industrial product brands?
  • Green evokes growth, nature and harmony. Its use has been growing in recent decades.
  • Yellow personifies joy, intellect and energy. It’s employed by brands to evoke cheerful, sunny feelings.
  • Purple suggests wealth and royalty. It’s no accident that “royal purple” has been with us since Renaissance times.
  • Black projects authority, power and elegance. Not surprisingly, it’s the most popular choice for marketing luxury products. But it can be highly effective in promoting technology products as well.
  • White and silver communicate perfection and pristine clarity. These colors are also popular with technology products, but are used very often in healthcare-related products and services.

These time-honored color characteristics are very much in play in the world of websites. Such aspects are a factor in nine out of ten visitors to a website — half of whom report that they won’t return to a website based on the site’s lack of aesthetics, not just its functionality.

As well, the colors of call-to-action buttons are significant, as studies show that red, orange and green CTA buttons are the best ones for conversions (but only if they stand out from the rest of the content on the screen).

More fundamentally, what this means for website designers is that despite the desire to be “different” or “distinct” from others in the marketplace, many attitudes about color are so fundamental, that to fly in the face of them could well be a risky endeavor.