The debate over social media’s effectiveness continues.

Quoting Dr. Mark Ritson, is social media “the greatest act of mis-selling in the history of marketing?”

For people who might have wondered if the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting “lockdown culture” that followed would bring more clarity to the debate about the effectiveness of social media, I think it’s safe to conclude that very little has changed in its wake. Many marketing folks continue to suspect that social media may be closer to “all hat, no cattle” than they’d like it to be. 

In analyses and evaluations going as far back as a decade, most big companies’ followers on social media have never exceeded 2% to 3% of their brands’ customer base. But the true numbers are even more discouraging, because many brand followers on social media are actually “sleepers” who might have liked a brand in order to participate in a competition, receive a giveaway, or for some other “instant gratification” reason they can’t even recall now.

Mark Ritson

A more realistic metric is how many people choose to interact with a brand on social media.  On that basis, the figures nosedive.  Mark Ritson, a brand specialist and professor of marketing who has worked at the London Business School and the University of Minnesota, pegs  true engagement at around 0.02% of the people who “like” brands.

Other research points to similarly disappointing metrics regarding social media’s impact on purchasing activities.  Adobe finds that only about 1% of its social media interactions end up in a purchase, whereas search marketing, direct website traffic and referrals from other websites are the real drivers in terms of the decision to purchase.

So the dynamics haven’t really budged in recent times.  At its core, social media channels enable people to communicate with one another, not with brands.  For the kind of brand marketing we routinely see happening on social media, it’s little more than an advertising medium offering inventory like any other advertising business.  But those aren’t the reasons why people are on social media in the first place – hence the disconnect.

Contrast those dynamics with organic search and paid search marketing, which come into play when people are searching for answers to questions – often about products and what’s available to purchase.  In that regard, any investment in search marketing is money better-spent because it helps keep websites aligned with Google search bots’ way of thinking and judging what content gets shown “first and best” on search engine results pages.  Marketers can see the results and judge the customer acquisition costs accordingly. 

Over in the social media world, it’s true that the biggest brands can show some “success” in their audience engagement, but it’s likely because they have such a huge brand presence to begin with.  That simply isn’t the case with vast majority of companies.  For them, the road to commercial success likely doesn’t run through Social Mediaville.

What are your own personal experiences with marketing via social media?  Has the reality lived up to the promise?  Please share your thoughts and observations with other readers here.

COVID Casualty: Homogenous Corporate Swag

Corporate promotional products and branded swag have been a big part of business for decades.  The Advertising Specialty Institute reports that in 2019, promo products expenditures in North America amounted to nearly $26 billion, amazing as that figure might seem.

But that was before the coronavirus pandemic hit, shutting down trade shows and forcing the cancellation of events (or migrating them online).  All of a sudden, demand for branded tchotchkes, hats, t-shirts, tote bags and the like pretty much disappeared.

However, just because corporate swag fell off the radar screen in 2020 doesn’t mean that corporate freebies for customers and prospects are a thing of the past.  But COVID seems to have changed how some marketers feel about these items — and given them reason to rethink how branded merchandise can do a better job of actually nurturing customer relationships.

Because of this introspection, the days of ubiquitous, unlimited “homogenous” corporate swag may well be numbered — and that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.  For those of us who have participated in industry trade shows, corporate events and the like over the years, when you consider how much stuff is given out to people who promptly discard the items because they aren’t something they either needed or wanted to have, coming up with a different approach was bound to fall on fertile ground.

Enter “gifting-as-a-service” firms.  Several of these such as Snappy App, Kitchen Stadium and Alyce have sprung up in recent times.  They operate under business models that are as simple as they are elegant.  Think of them as “choose your own swag” concepts wherein recipients are given the opportunity to pick which items they prefer – and in some cases the size and color, too.  Then those items are shipped directly to the recipient’s home or office.

Being given a card to check off their item of choice it may not pack the same impact as being given the item right there on the spot, but it actually makes life easier for everyone. No longer does a trade show attendee have to lug the item around the exhibit floor and back to his or her hotel room — nor pack it for the flight home.  The exhibitor doesn’t need to ship swag merchandise to the show – hoping that the quantity shipped isn’t substantially higher or lower than the number of items actually needed.

Such “gifting-as-a-service” programs provide a better experience for recipients, too, because people can select something they actually want from among a selection of items.  And for companies, it could actually turn out to be less costly in the end because they wouldn’t need to be pay for gift items that aren’t redeemed.

Such programs are versatile enough to work across all types of activities – including online as well as in-person events.  They can also be offered as rewards to loyal customers completely apart from any particular show or event.

One final plus – or at least a hope – is that less swag will end up in the trash before it’s even had the chance to be worn or used.  In a world where there’s increasing focus on environmental sustainability, that has to count for something, too.

“You are what you wear.”

Research from Duke University suggests that people who are dressed up buy more and spend more than their casually dressed counterparts.

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, people have been “dressing down” more than ever.  But recent consumer research suggests that for buying more and spending more, retailers do much better when their customers are dressing sharp.

Researchers at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business analyzed the shopping habits of two different groups of consumers.  Smartly dressed shoppers — as in wearing dresses or blazers — put more items in their carts and spent more money compared to casual dressers (as in wearing T-shirts and flip-flops).

The difference among the two groups’ shopping behaviors were significant, too:  18% more items purchased and 6% more money spent by the sharp dressers.

The Duke University research findings were written up in a paper titled “The Aesthetics We Wear: How Attire Influences What We Buy,” which was published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.

According to Keisha Cutright, a Duke University professor of marketing and a co-author of the report, when people are dressed up they tend to have more social confidence, which in turn reduces the anxiety people may feel about making certain purchasing decisions:

“We focus on how your dress affects your own perceptions.  When you’re dressed formally, you believe that people are looking at you more favorably and they believe you are more competent.  If you feel competent, you can buy whatever you want without worrying what other people think, or whether they will be judging you negatively.”

Parallel Duke research also found that retailers can actually prompt would-be shoppers to wear nicer outfits when shopping at their stores by featuring nicely dressed models in their advertising.  “So, there are some practical implications from the research for retailers,” Cutright says.

How about you? What sort of dynamics are in play regarding how you’re dressed and what you buy as a result?  Is there a correlation between what you’re wearing and how you’re shopping?  Please share your observations with other readers here.

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 trade show 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 responses, 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 in the CEIR survey research reported that they plan 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. 

That 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 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 similar in-person events:

  • 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 offerings 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? 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.