Company e-newsletters: Much ado about … what?

One of my clients is a multinational manufacturing firm that has published its own “glossy” company magazine for years now. The multi-page periodical is published several times a year, in several regional editions including one for the North American market.

It’s a magazine that’s full of interesting customer “case histories” accompanied by large, eye-catching photos. The stories are well-written and sufficiently “breezy” in character to read quickly and without strenuous effort.  The North American edition is direct-mailed to a sizable target audience of mid-five figures.

And I wonder how many people actually read it.

The reason for my suspicion stems from the time we were asked to produce a survey asking about readers’ topic preferences for the magazine. The questionnaire was bound into one of the North American issues, including a postage-paid return envelope.  The survey was simple and brief (tick-boxes with no open-ended questions).  And there was an incentive offered.

In short, it was the kind of survey that anyone who engaged with the publication even minimally would find worthwhile, and easy to fill out and return.

Except that (practically) no one did so.

The unavoidable conclusion: people were so unengaged with the publication that they weren’t even opening the magazine to discover that there was a survey to fill out.

In the world of company e-mail newsletters, is the same dynamic is at work? One might not think so.  After all, readers must opt-in to receive them – suggesting that their engagement level would tend to be higher.

Well … no.

A just-published study titled How Audiences View Content Marketing, finds that company e-newsletters are just as “disengaging” as the printed pieces of yesteryear.

The study’s results are based on a survey conducted by digital web design firm Blue Fountain Media. Among the findings outlined in the report are these interesting nuggets:

  • One in five respondents completely ignore the e-newsletters they receive, while more than half scan headlines before deciding to read anything.
  • Two-thirds of respondents admitted that the main reason for opting in to receive e-newsletters is to take advantage of special offers or discounts, while only around 20% expressed any interest at all in receiving information about the company.
  • More than half of respondents (~52%) feel that newsletter content is too “commercial” (as in “too sales-y”). Other complaints are that the e-newsletters are “tool long” (~21%) or “boring” (~19%).

Even more alarming is this finding: Approximately one-third of the respondents fell that e-newsletter content is so lame, it actually leads them to question using the product or service.

That seems like marketing going in reverse!

What Blue Fountain has uncovered may be indicative of another challenge as well:  the diminishing allure of content marketing. Over time, readers have become cautious about accepting online content as the gospel truth; this research pegs it at two-thirds of respondents feeling this way.

At the same time, only about one-third of the respondents think that they can distinguish well between fact-based content versus content with an “agenda” behind it. And therein lies the basis for suspicion or distrust.

On the plus side, the research found that readers are more apt to engage with video content, so that may be a way for e-newsletters to fight back in the battle for relevance.  But it still seems a tall order.

I address the topic of company e-newsletters in a second blog post to follow — stay tuned …

Are 5-star online reviews really the best ones?

It would seem that the more top ratings a company or product can receive in online reviews, the better it would be for their business.

As it turns out, this isn’t exactly the case. A recent national study has concluded that businesses earning star-ratings averaging between 3.5 and 4.5 on a five-point scale earn more revenues annually than those with other ratings – higher or lower.

And even more surprising, top-rated businesses with five stars actually earn less in revenues than those whose customer ratings are two stars or lower.

What’s going on here?

It would seem that five-star ratings are considered “too good to be true.”  Seeing them, people tend to think something’s fishy about how the ratings can be so high. And if there’s something worse than getting low ratings, it’s the feeling that the ratings a company has earned aren’t “genuine.”

The analysis, conducted recently by small business SaaS supplier Womply, sought to study the correlation between online customer reviews and company revenues, and in doing so it looked at data from a large number of U.S. small businesses.

The more than 200,000 businesses studied had an average annual revenues of around $300,000. The Womply research spanned diverse industries and markets including restaurants, auto shops, retailers, medical and dental offices, hair and nail salons, etc.

While the ratings dynamics may be surprising, another Womply finding reinforces the intuitive view that attracting more reviews online is better than attracting fewer ones.

The businesses studied by Womply averaged ~82 total reviews across multiple online review sites. But for those businesses attracting more than the average number of reviews, they earned ~54% more in annual revenues than the average.  And for those with 200 reviews or more, the average annual revenues were nearly double the average revenue figure.

The propensity for companies to respond to reviews appears to boost revenue performance as well. The Womply study found that businesses that fail to interact with their customers’ reviews earn lower revenue on balance – as much as 10% less than their counterparts.

The key takeaway points from the Womply research appear to be:

  • Too many top-rating reviews risk making a company’s reputation appear less genuine, actually repelling business rather than attracting it.
  • To improve revenues, businesses should encourage their customers to post reviews online.
  • To improve revenues, businesses should engage with reviewers by responding to their comments, addressing concerns, and expressing gratitude for praise.
  • People feel more affinity with companies that acknowledge their customers and treat them like they care. It’s basically the Golden Rule in practice.

What are your thoughts? Do the findings surprise you?  Please share your perspectives with other readers.

Roads to … nowhere?

Google Maps admits its business listings are riddled with errors and outright fraudulent entries.

The news reports hit fast and furious this week when the media got wind of the millions upon millions of “faux” business listings on Google Maps, thanks to a new Wall Street Journal exposé.

It’s true that there are a ton of map listings displayed by Google on search engine results pages, but the latest estimates are that there are more than 11 million falsely listed businesses that pop up on Google searches on any given business day.

That number may seem eyebrow-raising, but it’s hardly “new news.” Recall the reports that date as far back as a half-decade — to wit:

  • In 2014, cyber-security expert Bryan Seely showed how easy it was to use the Internet’s open architecture to record telephone conversations and create fraudulent Google Maps listings and locations.
  • In 2017, Google released a report titled Pinning Down Abuse on Google Maps, wherein it was estimated that one in ten fake listings belonged to actual real-live businesses such as restaurants and motels, but that nefarious third-parties had claimed ownership of them. Why do this? So that the unscrupulous bad-actors could deceive the targeted businesses into paying search referral fees.

Google is owning up to its continuing challenges, this week issuing a statement as follows:

“We understand the concerns of those people and businesses impacted by local business scammers, and back in 2017 we announced the progress we’d made. There was still work to be done then, and there’s still work to be done now.  We have an entire team dedicated to addressing these issues and taking constant action to remove profiles that violate our policies.”

But is “constant action” enough? Certain business trades are so riddled with fake listings, it’s probably best to steer clear of them altogether.  Electricians, plumbers and other contractors are particularly sketchy categories, where roughly 40% of Google Maps listings are estimated to be fraudulent entries.

The Wall Street Journal‘s recent exposé, published on June 24th, reported on a search its researchers conducted for plumbers in New York City.  Of the top 20 Google search results returned, only two actually exist where they’re reported to be located and accept customers at the addresses listed.  That’s pretty awful performance even if you’re grading on a curve.

A measure of progress has been made; Google reports that in 2018 it removed some 3 million fake business listings. But that still leaves another 11 million of them out there, silently mocking …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The evolution of e-mail.

It’s all about mobility now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Private label branding: Recession or no, it’s a trend that’s here to stay.

During the Great Recession of 2008-10, it was no surprise to see an increase in private label product sales – not just in food products but also in apparel, cosmetics and other consumer categories.

That was then …

It was much like a similar recessionary time in the United States history — back in the 1970s — when some supermarkets began selling “generic” packaged and canned goods. Those offerings celebrated their generic status by emphasizing their lack of branding – ostensibly to demonstrate that by cutting back on marketing and advertising costs, product pricing to the consumer could be kept lower.

The generic movement didn’t last. When the economic go-go times returned in the mid-1980s, consumers were more than happy to forego the cheaper offerings and go back to their favorite brands.

But the situation is different today. The Great Recession may now be a decade in the rearview mirror, but the private label brands they spawned are going strong.  In fact, they’re thriving as never before – and in some ways are eating the legacy brands’ lunch.

… This is now.

Several factors are fundamentally different from before. For one, products that compete on price are no longer being marketed as “generics” but rather as brands in their own right.  Brand names like Kirkland, Archer Farms and Essential Everyday look and feel like Kraft, Kellogg’s and other longstanding brands – and for the most part their quality is indistinguishable as well.

Equally important is that fact that there’s no longer any particular stigma associated with shopping “cheap” private label brands. It turns out that consumers in every income category appreciate a bargain; no one wants to feel like they’re being ripped off when there are good quality “best-value” alternatives available.

The usually prescient Warren Buffet appears to have been caught a little off-guard by the changing landscape, recently expressing surprise (and alarm) about this development. His Berkshire Hathaway enterprise took a $3 billion hit in the face of disappointing earnings as Kraft-Heinz share prices dropped more than 25%, thanks to strong competition from the private label alternatives.

Consider these eyebrow-raising statistics: Costco’s Kirkland house brand notched sales of $39 billion in 2018, which is substantially higher than Kraft-Heinz’s total brand sales of $26 billion.

Indeed, the consumer foods industry is witnessing this happening all over the place. Amazon may not be developing its own private brands like Costco or Target have done, but it is working diligently with food and beverage manufacturers to develop private label offerings to sell exclusively on Amazon’s own website.

Looking at the macro environment, the United States is running at historically low unemployment rates today, but that hasn’t stunted the phenomenal growth of discount grocery chains like Aldi and Lidl. Aldi has come from practically nowhere several years ago to threaten becoming America’s 3rd place grocery retailer, behind only Walmart and Kroger.  Aldi has done so by pursuing an über-aggressive private label strategy that’s targeting younger, middle-income shoppers in particular.

Note that Aldi is training their sights on more than just budget-conscious consumers, which have traditionally been the narrower audience for private label brands. It turns out that the “stigma” some might have attributed to the “cheap” image of private label foods isn’t there any longer.

For younger consumers especially, such “status” concerns are of no pertinence at all. Whereas the typical grocery cart today contains ~25% private label products, among millennials the proportion is more like one-third.

Based on these trends, it’s little wonder that a recently released Thomas Index Report reports that sourcing activity for private label foods is up more than 150% year over year.

And while the growth of private label products is most pronounced in the food, paper goods and household supplies sectors — and has had the most disruptive consequences there — other sectors like apparel and cosmetics are seeing similar developments.

[Let’s not forget private label pharmaceuticals, too, where price differences are often dramatically lower than just the 15-20% differential we see in the food sector.]

The bottom line is this: Recession or no, cheap has become chic.  It’s a trend that’s here to stay.  The legacy brands won’t be able to wait this one out and expect better days to come along again.

Which brands are “meaningful” to consumers? Not very many.

What makes a brand “meaningful”? Multinational advertising, PR and research firm Havas SA has studied this topic for the past decade, conducting a survey every other year in which it attempts to rate the world’s most important brands based on consumer responses to questions about select key brand attributes.

According to Maarten Albarda, the methodology behind the Havas surveys is solid:

“It looks at three brand pillars: personal benefits; collective benefits, and functional benefits — and then adds in 13 dimensions like environment, emotional, social, ethics, etc. plus 52 attributes such as ‘saves time,’ ‘makes me happier,’ ‘delivers on its promises,’ etc.”

The Havas research is both global and quantitative — including more than 350,000 respondents in over 30 countries.

The 2019 Havas research shows that ~77% of the 1,800 brands studied don’t cut it with consumers. This finding came in response to the question of whether consumers would care if the brands disappeared tomorrow.

That’s the biggest disparity ever seen in the Havas surveys. Two years ago, the percentage was 74%.

Which brands perform best with consumers? The top five ranked for 2019 are the following:

  • #1 Google
  • #2 PayPal
  • #3 Mercedes-Benz
  • #4 WhatsApp
  • #5 YouTube

Four of these five are brands that are all about “utility” — helping consumers deal with actions (watching, searching and sharing). The odd one out here is Mercedes-Benz — suggesting that there is something enduring about the time-tested reputation for “German engineering.”

What’s equally interesting is which high-profile brands don’t crack the Top 30. I’m somewhat surprised that we don’t see the likes of Apple and Coca-Cola in the group.  On the other hand, Johnson & Johnson comes in at #6, which seems surprising to me because I doubt that J&J has the same kind of consumer awareness as many other brands.

The Havas research reveals that the highest ranked brands are ones that score well on purchase intent and the justification of carrying a premium price. Repurchase scores are also higher, making it clear that a meaningful brand translates into meaningful business benefits.

In addition to reporting on international results, Havas also releases a U.S. analysis. Historically, U.S. consumers have been even more parsimonious in choosing to bestow a “meaningful” attribution on brands.  In fact, the percentage of American consumers earmarking specific brands as indispensable hovers around 10%, compared to the mid-20s across the rest of the world.

The reason why is quite logical: American consumers tend to have more brand choices — and the more choices there are, the less any one brand would cause consternation if it disappeared tomorrow.

Click here for more reporting and conclusions from the Havas research.